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Recordings

Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci
07 Apr 2006

LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci

No exact date is given for this performance and there is good reason for it. The sleeve notes clearly state that baritone Enzo Sordello (of the 15 minutes of world fame when the Met fired him for clinging to a high note longer than Callas) sings the role of Silvio.

Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci

Giuseppe Di Stefano, Clara Petrella, Aldo Protti, Luigi Alva, Enzo Sordello, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Nino Sanzogno (cond.)
Live Registration 1956 Milano.

Myto Historical 061H108 [CD]

$10.99  Click to buy

While listening, I noted that the voice doesn’t resemble much the far throatier sound of Sordello in his best known official recording, the Decca/London Butterfly with Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Cossotto of one year later. The catalogue of Myto and the print on the CD, however, state that Sardinero was Silvio. If so, this must be one of the world records as the Spanish baritone was only 19 at the time. The La Scala site isn’t much help either. The very detailed and helpful archives are no longer to be found on the net. Still, I know that Pagliacci had a run of 6 performances and that Walter Monachesi also sang Silvio. So for the moment my money is on him and I’d appreciate any reader’s help in pinpointing an exact date on this live recording.

The sound is not always perfect. Sometimes it is a little bit murky and a few times it wavers. Luckily, it’s mostly the chorus that suffers, though that still is a pity as the La Scala chorus of that time sounded as if every singer could have a solo career. Such a CD’s (and the whole performance is on one) interest is concentrated on Giuseppe Di Stefano, though his admirers maybe possess this performance already as it was published previously on GDS and Movimento Musica. For those without this recording, I can only say the tenor is in terrific voice. Yes, the weaknesses of the time are there and they are well-known. He doesn’t cover enough and his open-throated singing sometimes results in squeezing the sound out. Above the staff, the voice starts thickening and is sometimes flat. But for most of the time, he sounds very fresh-voiced with that beautiful, unequalled timbre very much intact. Indeed, he sounds better than on his official recording of 1954. Maybe his is not the voice to sing Canio; but one wouldn’t be without this beautiful, lyric interpretation. And sometimes the experienced singer knows how to have the listener sit up when he unexpectedly introduces a beautiful diminuendo, where other tenors just bawl on as in his “tu sei Pagliacco” in a magnificent Vesti la giubba where he doesn’t use the “Gigli-improvement-sob” of “Infamia, infamia” during the postlude, as so many other tenors did (Del Monaco, Corelli). Yet, I admit I was quite surprised when he didn’t sing or sob the final “La commedia è finita” but prefers roaring it.

There is more to be enjoyed than the tenor, too. Clara Petrella is a magnificent Nedda. She was one of the three great veristas of the age (the other two being Olivero and Gavazzi) and maybe she had the best instrument of them all. A big, rich and luscious soprano with the small quivering of emotion in it that endears those singers to us. Though she never breaks the line, the emphasis and the voluntary pressure on the voice make her unforgettable. Yes, she can snarl but she snarls musically.

Baritone Aldo Protti probably was the favoured black beast of English critics at the time; but, Decca/London soon dropped him. He was considered to be dull and uninspiring. True he doesn’t have Gobbi’s inflexions and colouring; and he phrases far less imaginatively than his great contemporary, though he had far more voice at his disposal. Out comes a wonderful big stream of a voice, though almost always at the same level. In the house, one marvelled at the voice (and at the small size of the man); but on records, indeed, one could use something more.

Walter Monachesi is a good solid Silvio though he sings the role more like a Rigoletto than a young lover. And Luigi Alva as Peppe is casting from strength of course. No theatre nowadays would probably think of asking Juan Diego Flórez for this important second tenor role. A comprimario would do.

Nino Sanzogno has some original thoughts on tempi. Quick is better with him and already during the first measures of Canio’s entrance he is at loggerheads with Di Stefano for a few seconds. He soon slows down as he well knows that, in the pecking order of La Scala, he clearly comes behind the tenor; but, the moment Di Stefano is gone, he hurries up. This must be the fastest Ding Dong Chorus I know; and I marvelled at Petrella’s breath control when he rushed her through her aria. The moment Di Stefano appears, things once more revert to normal. All in all, a performance that surely must be heard. They don’t make them like that any more.

Jan Neckers

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