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Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857–1919)
I Pagliacci (1892)
Andrea Bocelli (tenor) – Canio; Ana María Martínez (soprano) – Nedda; Stefano Antonucci (baritone) – Tonio; Francesco Piccoli (tenor) – Beppe; Roberto Accurso (baritone) – Silvio; Salvatore Bonaffini (tenor) – Un contadino; Salvatore Todaro (baritone) – Un altro contadino
Coro di voci bianche ”Gaudeamus igitur” Concentus
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Massimo Bellini, Catania/Steven Mercurio
rec. Teatro Massimo Bellini, Catania, 24 June–4 July 2002. DDD
DECCA 475 7753 [78:32]

This Pagliacci was recorded during the same period in 2002 as its twin brother Cavalleria rusticana (see review). It’s the same conductor and the same leading baritone alongside Andrea Bocelli, who is the raison d’être for both projects. I had some objections to Mercurio’s dragging tempos in some places in Cavalleria. Also here he chops up the music in the pure orchestral sections, as in the introduction and the fine Intermezzo, whose main theme is a reminiscence from Tonio’s prologue. Otherwise he keeps things going in a straightforward manner. As in Cavalleria the choral singing is good. I can’t say that it is a very theatrical production – it rather feels studio-bound, even though it was recorded in the theatre.
I found Stefano Antonucci an appealing but possibly too lyrical Alfio in Cavalleria and thought that Tonio might be even less well suited to his voice but actually he rises well to the occasion. Lyrical he certainly is but the Tonio role isn’t really about force, it is just as much a character part, and Antonucci is very expressive and colours his voice admirably in the prologue. He sings Un nido di memorie pianissimo to very fine effect and all through the performance acts more with nuance and inflexion rather than with volume, even though he forces too much in a couple of instances. Generally though this is a memorable reading. Ana María Martinez is a bit uneven. In Nedda’s aria her tone is uncharacteristically fluttery, maybe recorded on an off-day, while the dramatic scene with Tonio finds her in ringing form and in the “play within the play” in the second act, she is excellent.
Francesco Piccoli is an honest but not very individual Beppe and his serenade could have been more ingratiating. Having known Tito Schipa’s recording for so long I am spoilt and no one is ever likely to challenge him for elegance and charm. I am afraid that Roberto Accurso is a fairly mediocre Silvio. He is involved but uneven and sings too often off pitch. Even Ms Martinez is a little unsteady in their duet, which is one of the best parts of the opera. The end of the duet goes better, however.
I have left Andrea Bocelli to last and the situation is roughly the same as in Cavalleria: much full-throated singing with baritonal timbre but all too often he presses the voice beyond its natural limits. This results in strained and even strangulated tone. Un tal gioco in the first act is quite well sung – or rather his intentions are good, but Vesti la giubba is muddled and it doesn’t help that the conductor slows it down so much; the postlude almost comes to a stand-still. Bocelli grows in stature, however, in the last act, and No, Pagliaccio non son and the following Speravi, tanto il delirio (tracks 24 and 25) are delivered really heroically with a great deal of feeling. Here he is thrilling – but the tone is strained.
No, the best reason for acquiring this set is Stefano Antonucci and there is perhaps some symbolism in the fact that in this performance it is Tonio, not Canio, who utters the last line: La commedia è finita! Full texts and translations are included and the sound is excellent.
A recommendation? Bocelli fans will want this, irrespective of what I write. I have to admit to admiring his boldness and stamina. However for the best recording one has to look elsewhere. Karajan on DG with Bergonzi and a slightly over-aged but wonderfully expressive Giuseppe Taddei as Tonio is probably the safest bet. Bergonzi recorded the role also at the very beginning of his career for Cetra with another oldtimer, Carlo Tagliabue, as Tonio. This was the recording through which I learnt this opera. It can’t compete, however, with the Cellini recording from about the same time: Björling, los Angeles, Merrill and Warren – what a line-up! In both – or all three – cases we are treated to really sensitive singing of the title role. For a blood-and-thunder version that is hard to challenge for raw animal power the old Decca recording with Mario Del Monaco, Cornell McNeil and Gabriella Tucci is worth anyone’s money.
Göran Forsling


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