thoughtful, emotionally fleet and powerfully recorded
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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
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.
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