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Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
I Pagliacci (1892)
Franco Corelli (tenor) – Canio; Lucine Amara (soprano) – Nedda; Tito Gobbi (baritone) – Tonio; Mario Spina (tenor) – Beppe; Mario Zanasi (baritone) – Silvio; Contadino I – Franco Piva (tenor); Contadino II – Angelo Mercuriali (baritone)
Teatro alla Scala Orchestra & Chorus/Lovro von Matačić
Notes, tracklist & synopsis provided; no libretto
rec. July 1961, La Scala, Milan
ALTO ALC1435 [72:48]

Originally issued on Columbia, this has long been paired with Cavalleria rusticana in an EMI box set. I reviewed it as part of my survey of this opera and for me this is one of those “might have been” recordings, as it is compromised by the casting of Lucine Amara as Nedda. It is strange; three years after this recording she did a fine job recording the Verdi Requiem with Ormandy, but here in a rather different genre she sounds quite wrong. Having said that, I find that this time around I am less perturbed by the unsuitability of her timbre and more inclined to be tolerant of it, especially as you can hear that she still does good things, such as executing pure, secure top notes and using the text tellingly – until I recall the delights of Callas, Caballé or even Gabriella Tucci in that role.

I reproduce here what I wrote in that survey, as otherwise my response has hardly shifted since:

“You may be sure that with von Matačić at the helm, the conducting will be first class and the sound engineering of this 1960 recording is under the supervision of Walter Legge – now reconciled to new-fangled stereo, so we can all breathe easy there, too. Then we have the chance to hear Tito Gobbi’s unmatchable Tonio in that stereo sound while his voice still in fine condition – even if this time the optional, climactic A-flat in the Prologue was ill-advised and a certain dryness is very evident up top. Mario Zanasi as Silvio was a stylish baritone, good enough to be Germont to Callas’ Violetta at Covent Garden two years previously. The icing on the cake, is the great Franco Corelli at the peak of his career, trumpeting top notes and tearing a passion to tatters. So all’s well, right? Hmm. The fly in the ointment is Lucine Amara’s undistinguished Nedda. She was a fine Musetta in Beecham’s La bohème and made a just about acceptable Nedda for Cleva with Richard Tucker back in 1951 but she is not the same singer here. She’s not exactly bad; her top notes are quite pure but otherwise she has a funny little voice which most of the time sounds nasal, bottled and “ingolata”; there’s not much variety on colour or dynamic and she simply sounds too old for the flighty Nedda and more like someone’s auntie. The contrast with Zanasi’s youthful, supple Silvio is almost comical – and tests our credulity. She is better in the “play within a play” but still too shrill and shallow. That compromises this recording too much for me, for all that I love to hear Corelli in full flight.”

Revisiting it on this bargain issue from the Alto label, I can hear no difference between it and the EMI release; it remains eminently listenable and spacious, with just the faintest papery rustle in the background audible only during the quietest passages. I am struck afresh by the easy mastery and flexibility of von Matačić’s conducting and the brilliance of Gobbi’s and Corelli’s vocalism and characterisation; the former’s way with words is miraculous and Corelli is a force of nature; his concluding top B on “a ventitre ore” is one of the most thrilling sounds on disc. I did not mention in my survey the vigour and enthusiasm of the orchestra and chorus; the rabble of ragazzi in particular is a raucous delight.

While we can hear Gobbi in finest voice in the celebrated Serafin recording with Callas, I would not want to be without this, Corelli’s sole commercial recording of Canio even though that means putting up with a less than ideal Nedda.

Ralph Moore

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