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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945)
Cavalleria rusticana (1890)
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919)
Pagliacci (1892)
Southend Boys’ Choir, Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. May & June 1979, Kingsway Hall, London. ADD
WARNER CLASSICS 7636502 [74:09 + 75:53]

This perpetual twin billing, the Castor and Pollux of the operatic firmament, was recorded nearly forty years ago as I write. Both operas are given red-blooded performances by distinguished casts, though neither is ideal from a characterisation point of view, each with certain weaknesses which become more apparent in comparison with other celebrated recordings. The greatest attraction here is to hear JosÚ Carreras in finest voice play both seminal tenor roles; of additional, somewhat more academic, interest is the chance to hear the “authentic” version of Pagliacci.

Let's first acknowledge the lovely, lyrical playing from the Philharmonia and superb choral singing under Muti’s sensitive conducting, who is not the least driven as he sometimes can be but very flexible. I love the speed and pace of his direction on the “Don-din” choral number before Nedda’s big aria and the riotous crowd scene before the play draws terrific singing and playing from the chorus and orchestra. A really cohesive sense of drama emerges; the concluding “Hanno ammazzato compare Turiddu!” is wonderfully raucous and chilling.

However, CaballÚ has the wrong voice for Santuzza; she is not a dramatic soprano and is both pushing her lower register and screaming loud top notes, as in “Sono scomunicata!”, to encompass the demands of the role. She is also often rather precious and “arty” where she needs to embrace the verismo wallop of the score. I much prefer her as Nedda, as in her excellent studio recording under Nello Santi.

That once great Wagnerian soprano Astrid Varnay as Mamma Lucia is, as is almost traditional with this role, wobbly and laboured but Julia Hamari makes a smoky, sexy Lola. Manuguerra’s baritone is lean and incisive – ideal as the dangerous, vengeful Alfio – even if his whip cracks are far too near and present in the sound picture. Carreras is impassioned and free-voiced as Turiddu and his “S’io non tornassi”” is splendidly full-throated, but even this early in his career you sense he is pushing his lovely instrument and he doesn’t have the red-blooded swagger and heft of Del Monaco, Tucker or Corelli.

In Pagliacci, Muti is in purist, spoil-sport mode, using an edition which returns to the original autography score, ignoring and eschewing the accretion of illicit top notes, different markings, textual changes and upward transpositions of phrases which has accrued over the years and giving back to Tonio the final verdict “La commedia Ŕ finita!”; the result, to quote the notes, is the “lighter, cleaner performance” Leoncavallo actually wanted instead of the more grandstanding style we hear customarily hear. However, I still miss Tonio’s top A flat and G at the end of his Prologue.

That role is sung by Finnish baritone Kari Nurmela, whose life was cut short by a cerebral haemorrhage at fifty years old, a mere five years after this recording, and I think this is his only major, commercial recording. He has a firm, flexible voice but is not especially vivid compared with such as Gobbi, Warren or Milnes, rather under-playing both the menace and the comedy. Carreras is on fire, inhabiting his role as the aging, jealous husband with an adulterous young wife, played by Renata Scotto. Even at this stage of her career, her soprano was starting to spread alarmingly at the top end of its range but she has wonderful control over expressive portamenti and the dynamics of her phrasing, making her Nedda very touching, even if the listener winces on some high notes.

The young Tom Allen as the ardent Silvio adds a touch of class and elegance in his smooth vocalisation; his love duet with Nedda is a highlight. Ugo Benelli is a similarly elegant Beppe.

The violent climax of the opera certainly makes its mark, with Carreras and Scotto throwing themselves into full verismo mode and the sneering epilogue sounds right coming from Tonio’s mouth. This might not surpass the classic double-bill recording from Callas and Di Stefano or others featuring tenors like Corelli, Del Monaco, Bjőrling but it catches Carreras in peak form before his regrettable decline and is a worthy representation of two works key to the operatic canon. Sadly, among all the recent reissues, this would appear to be currently available only as a download (without a booklet), unless you are prepared to pursue the CD release from almost 30 years ago in the second-hand market.

Ralph Moore

Cast listing
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945)
Cavalleria rusticana (1890)
Santuzza – Montserrat CaballÚ (soprano)
Turiddu – JosÚ Carreras (tenor)
Alfio – Matteo Manuguerra (baritone)
Lola – Julia Hamari (mezzo-soprano)
Mamma Lucia – Astrid Varnay (mezzo-soprano)
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919)
Pagliacci (1892)
Canio – JosÚ Carreras (tenor)
Nedda – Renata Scotto (soprano)
Tonio – Kari Nurmela (baritone)
Beppe – Ugo Benelli (tenor)
Silvio – Thomas Allen (baritone)
Contadino – Leslie Fyson (bass-baritone)

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