was intended as the first part of an ambitious trilogy of operas based on aspects of the Italian renaissance. The publisher Ricordi rejected the proposal and suggested that instead Leoncavallo should concentrate on writing libretti for other composers. However after the immense success of Pagliacci
in 1892 another publisher did accept it. I Medici
was produced in Milan the following year and subsequently in Berlin where it impressed Kaiser Wilhelm II sufficiently for him to commission an historical opera on the subject of the Hohenzollerns. In total Leoncavallo wrote twelve operas and ten operettas but, except for a rare revival of his version of La Bohème
, all have vanished from the stage except the inevitable Pagliacci
. I would not want for a moment to disparage that opera which fully deserves its place but it is extremely welcome to have the opportunity to hear the present work. What this recording reveals immediately from the vivid opening hunting scene followed by an impassioned love duet is that this clearly comes from a composer with a real understanding of the needs of the stage and of singers. A large cast and orchestra are required, along with elaborate staging, but it is easy to imagine how effective it would be in the theatre.
I was frequently reminded in melody, harmony or scoring of Pagliacci
but no more so than between two works by any other composer with a distinctive musical personality. It is indeed good to realise that Leoncavallo did have such an individual voice although by no means as much as the learned note by Michele Girardi suggests and there are occasional reminders of contemporary composers including Wagner, Verdi and Massenet. There is no feeling that this is a patchwork of borrowings from those composers, rather that he is using the lingua franca
of the time for his own purposes. Much more important is the way in which the score embodies a real contrast in character between scenes and in the way in which tension is built up and released. The composer’s masterly ensemble writing, especially in the complex scenes in the middle acts where different groupings of characters emerge both musically and dramatically is a particular highlight. It has to be admitted that melodically it does not begin to match Pagliacci
in memorable quality but it surely equals the work of other Italian composers of the day such as Giordano or Cilea. It must also be admitted that the final scene, although satisfactory, does not really come as the kind of musical and dramatic climax that is needed, leaving the listener slightly disappointed at the end.
Many little performed operas have emerged on disc in recent years, for which the listener should be profoundly grateful given how unlikely they are to be seen on stage. Often these have been live recordings from less well known opera houses, where some shortcomings, musical or technical, have to be accepted. That is not the case here. A cast including Plácido Domingo, Carlos Ávarez and Daniela Dessi would be counted as a luxury even for a studio recording of a well known work, but is beyond normal dreams for such a little known work. There perhaps is the rub, in that all three singers, and indeed the cast as a whole, throw themselves unsparingly into the performance, but there is a lack of the kind of individual inflexion and detailed understanding that can only come from familiarity with the work on stage. It has to be admitted also that there are occasional signs of strain in Plácido Domingo’s upper register and that Renata Lamanda is prone to a very wide vibrato when strong emotions are called for, as in Act 3. Allowing for these matters and bearing in mind that for the most part the performance is idiomatic and well focused, what we have here is more than sufficient to convince me that the opera would be worth staging. The chorus and orchestra take every advantage of their extensive and grateful opportunities and Alberto Veronesi, as far as I can judge without a score, directs a detailed and vigorous performance. The recording is spacious and well balanced. Fortunately there have been no pointless economies over the presentation of the discs and the booklet includes a helpful essay, a synopsis and a libretto in four languages. Unusually there are no notes about the performers but it is right to put the emphasis on the work itself. Overall this is a significant achievement for everyone involved, and particularly for Deutsche Grammophon whose enterprise deserves to be richly rewarded.