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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) [79:10]
Fiorenza Cossotto - Santuzza
Plácido Domingo - Turiddu
Attilio d’Orazi - Alfio
Nella Verri - Mamma Lucia
Gabriella Novielli - Lola
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
I Pagliacci (1892) [78:52]
Plácido Domingo - Canio
Elena Mauti-Nunziata - Nedda
Benito di Bella - Tonio
Lorenzo Saccomani - Silvio
Piero De Palma - Beppe
Union of Japan Professional Choruses
NHK Symphony Orchestra/Oliviero de Fabritiis
rec. live performances, NHK Hall, Tokyo, 5 September 1976
VAI 4438 [158:02] 


Experience Classicsonline

The very un-politically correct war comics that I read as a boy often featured caricatured Japanese soldiers who, as well as screaming “Banzai!” rather a lot, frequently wore spectacles with lenses as thick as the bottoms of beer bottles. Perhaps the artists were, though, on to something for, to judge from the size of the Japanese subtitles on this DVD, the Japanese must be a very short-sighted race indeed.

This is, in fact, a real problem here for, unlike most DVDs where you can just switch them off, these subtitles were embedded into the recording at source and, as VAI explain, cannot be removed at all. They are present throughout the performances, sometimes even when there is no singing to translate (scene setting?). Thankfully, the English subtitles, when selected, are far more discrete and, where possible placed over the Japanese ones so that you do not lose any more of the on-screen action. But that raises, incidentally, another technical issue. Like most DVDs this one has a main menu from which you can select subtitles in the language of your choice – but whether I opted for English, French, Spanish or whatever, the resulting words invariably appeared on the screen in German! Thankfully I discovered by chance that the solution is to ignore the main menu options and to use your remote control’s “options” button to set the subtitles language. At least, this worked for me – I hope it will for all potential purchasers! 

So, on to the performances – and Cav first ... A very simple set on the large stage offers plenty of room for action, especially from the lively and well-drilled chorus. A major flaw is, though, the lighting. A naturalistic production like this surely needs to look very bright and very hot, emphasising and reinforcing the emotional temperature of the stage melodrama. Unfortunately, the blue-grey skies louring over the village in this production make the village look less Sicily than Surbiton. 

The quality of musicianship is, though, apparent from the beginning, with a sensitively played Prologue - de Fabritiis’s 56 years previous experience in the pit clearly in evidence as he draws highly idiomatic performances from his Japanese orchestra both here and in the later Intermezzo - a powerfully sung off-stage Siciliana from Domingo and a confidently sung opening chorus. 

From her first appearance, it is clear why Cossotto was so often the Santuzza of choice in the 1960s and 1970s (she also took the role on Karajan’s 1965 recording and 1968 filmed version). Her deep, rich and powerful voice is ideally suited to the emotions required by the role and her acting is very effective and moving (though even she is defeated by the [over]acting expected of her as she emotes silently during the last part of the Prologue). This Santuzza is one angry woman - not the helpless and hopeless creature one sometimes encounters – and her Easter Hymn is the comparatively brisk outpouring of one who is not there to wallow in self pity. Domingo (carrying a few extra pounds in the mid ‘70s) is equally powerful and the two of them match – and escalate – each other’s passions superbly and to impressive dramatic effect in their big duet. Later, Turiddu’s song in praise of wine also goes well both vocally and as a piece of acting. By making the supposed joie de vivre look and sound forced, Domingo makes his character’s subsequent “remorse” and “repentance” quite explicable. 

The other cast members – all native Italians – provide sound support. Interestingly enough, the DVD cover refers to them all as “singing actors” rather than (as one might have thought more likely) “acting singers”, though that might ultimately be justified by their uniformly rather unremarkable (if vocally perfectly adequate) performances. Attilio d’Orazi has, despite some rather unconvincing facial hair, effective stage presence. Though not initially making a great impact as Alfio the carefree carter, he subsequently rises to the occasion well in his confrontations with both Santuzza and Turiddu. His wife Lola, sung by Gabriella Novielli, suffers, though, by being presented too low key rather than the flashy tart she surely ought to be: it is hard to believe that this woman could have ensnared anyone, let alone the village stud Turiddu. Mamma Lucia (Nella Verri) is the victim not only of her son’s delinquency but also of more rather unsophisticated work by the make-up department. 

Moving on to Pag, the big selling point of this release becomes immediately apparent, for this performance was given and recorded on the very same night as the Cav - and Plácido Domingo took the lead tenor role in both. That is something that, for obvious reasons, not many singers have attempted. 

Immediately one is struck one again by the orchestra’s full-blooded and vital contribution that underpins the on-stage dramatics most effectively. Tonio’s Prologue is well sung and powerfully delivered by Benito di Bella and is much appreciated by the enthusiastic audience, whereupon the curtain rises to reveal – Surbiton! Yes, it’s essentially the same set with a low wall running along the back and Cav’s church now transformed into a nondescript tenement. Thankfully, however, many of the earlier performance’s positive features - quite apart from Domingo himself! - remain in place. The chorus, for instance, is once again both very strong vocally and dramatically animated, filling the available space on stage with notable energy and enthusiasm in the crowd scenes. 

Elena Mauti-Nunziata is a good-looking Nedda and makes a strong, stylish impression in her ode to the birds, carrying that over successfully into her confrontation with the amorous Tonio and the more passionate encounter with her lover Silvio - Lorenzo Saccomani singing well and passionately in their duet, even though he is forced to do so through yet another poorly applied set of false whiskers. 

The star of the show, though, is predictably and undoubtedly Plácido Domingo. Assuming that the interval between Cav and Pag was of normal length that night, his vocal strength right from I Pagliacci’s opening scene is amazing … and he even has the stamina to give that drum a far heftier than usual thumping! His is a powerfully dramatic interpretation: you’d be frightened of this Canio even in the unlikely scenario of finding him in a good mood. Of course, there are also all the masterly and handsome sounds that one would expect too, but they are all married – and fall subservient - to the score’s dramatic requirements. Thus Vesti la giubba is, in this interpretation, delivered with rather less wallowing self pity than is often the case, even though the traditional sobs are still in plentiful supply at the end. As always, it brings the house down. 

Act II’s “play within a play” is well conceived and executed, with our final soloist Beppe/Harlequin (Piero De Palma) giving a creditable performance. There’s also great and very lively support from that Japanese chorus. Domingo’s portrayal of the humiliated, despairing and murderous Canio is a technically superb and highly convincing piece of operatic acting that almost convinces one that this pretty preposterous plot - which, in spite of all the Prologue’s protestations to the contrary, it really is - might really be verismo after all. 

The technical quality of these recordings is very good, given that they are more than thirty years old. The sound is clear and, although the camera loses sharp focus once or twice, the director was clearly well clued up so that he doesn’t miss any important action. Unfortunately, VAI’s packaging offers nothing other than a single small insert listing artists and tracks. These outstanding performances deserve better. 

Perhaps one day technology will permit the removal of those embedded Japanese subtitles without damaging the original material. But still, in the meantime, Domingo’s legion of fans and all lovers of fine – and dramatic - singing should seek out this DVD without delay.

Rob Maynard


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