These verismo twins – they were first performed together in
December 1893 at the Metropolitan Opera – have been recorded
innumerable times. The 1907 recording of Pagliacci, first
ever complete recording of an opera. According to Wikipedia
both have had more than 130 recordings! Beniamino Gigli recorded
both, Cavalleria in 1940 with the composer conducting.
After the war most of the leading tenors gave given their views
of Turiddu and Canio: Jussi Björling, Mario Del Monaco, Richard
Tucker, Carlo Bergonzi, Franco Corelli, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido
Domingo and José Carreras. All of these have something to offer
and it is difficult to pick an outright winner. To me Jussi
Björling and Carlo Bergonzi stand out for giving very nuanced
and lyrical readings. In particular the Bergonzi recordings
with Herbert von Karajan’s refined conducting go a long way
to prove that these works are far from the simple and primitive
hard-hitters that they have been accused of. I have to admit,
however, that the Decca stereo sets from around 1960 with Mario
Del Monaco in the tenor leads have a special thrill that is
difficult to resist – when one is in the right mood.
On the present set Giuseppe Di Stefano also has ambitions to
produce as many decibels as possible, singing at full throttle
most of the time. There is real thrill in the duet with Santuzza,
which is the dramatic climax, but Di Stefano was never a true
spinto, and the raw power that Del Monaco has in abundance –
and one always has a feeling that he still has something in
reserve – comes to Di Stefano as an act of volition. He is as
ardent as ever in the Siciliana and has his moments elsewhere
too but generally speaking he overreaches himself.
Callas, on the other hand, is superb in the role that was her
stage debut in a student production of the opera at the Olympia
Theatre when she was only fifteen. Her voice is fresh and beautiful.
nowhere more so than in Voi lo sapete which is overwhelming
in its intensity and vulnerable as well. This aria is
one of those that I would choose to play to people who think
Callas is overrated.
Rolando Panerai is a rather average Alfio – Robert Merrill on
the Björling recording surpasses him with more power and more
beautiful tone. I still have to hear a recording with Serafin
that is less than outstanding but here he and the Scala forces
are hampered by audio leaves a lot to be desired. It may have
something to do with the venue; it may also be the fault of
the recording team. Producer and balance engineer are unknown.
Not recommendable, then? Any recording with Callas at this stage
of her career can be recommended – even when her voice sometimes
adopts unbeautiful vibrato that became more prominent after
her Turandot recording. Here she is amazingly good, but
the total experience is compromised in several ways.
We move to a quite different world on CD 2. Pagliacci,
recorded almost exactly a year later, but in Teatro alla Scala.
Now the producer is not unknown. It is the legendary Walter
Legge who supervised many of Callas’s early recordings. The
balance engineer is Robert Beckett and together they achieve
a sound picture that is far superior to the Mascagni. By today’s
standards it lacks, quite naturally, wide dynamics and pinpoint
detail, but it offers more than decent mono sound, free from
distortion. The best mark one can give is, to my mind at least,
that one doesn’t think of the recording but concentrates on
the music and the interpretation. There is little Tullio Serafin
can do with some of Leoncavallo’s most glaring orchestration;
on the other hand that is part and parcel of the verismo concept.
It is a rather punchy performance but held within rather strict
The singing is also on a generally higher level. Tito Gobbi
opens the proceedings with a nuanced and moving reading of the
prologue. As always he sings with ‘face’ and he is in glorious
voice. Di Stefano also willingly scales down and finds the lyrical,
human voice of Canio before the matrimonial conflict develops.
Un tal gioco is tenor singing of the utmost beauty and
sensitivity. Vest la giubba and the furious outbreaks
in the second act are truly Italianate with all the feelings
undisguised before our ears – and though one can hear the pain
and despair he doesn’t indulge in lachrymose sobs and hiccups
à la Gigli.
Nedda is less interesting as a character than Santuzza, but
Callas makes the most of her aria Stridono lassù, where
she sings of the birds: ‘Vagabonds of the sky, who obey only
the secret force that drives them on and on’ who become
symbols for her own longing after freedom. But the high-spot
of the whole opera is her duet with Silvio. This was one of
the items on my first Callas LP Callas in Duet and I
was at once fascinated by the individuality of utterance that
set Callas apart from the only other recording I then had, Carla
Gavazzi on the old Cetra set, good as Gavazzi was. Here Rolando
Panerai is also on top form and both singers glow like embers.
With excellent choral contributions and Nicola Monty luxurious
casting as Beppe/Arlecchino this is a recording of Pagliacci
to challenge even Cellini’s (with Björling and de los Angeles).
This is a case where I would have preferred to be able to buy
the two operas separately, but then I would have had to live
without Callas’s Voi lo sapete.