Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci
Francesco Merli, tenor (Canio), Rosetta Pampanini, soprano (Nedda), Carlo Galeffi, baritone (Tonio), Giuseppe Nessi, tenor, (Beppe), Gino Vanelli, baritone (Silvio). Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, Lorenzo Molajoli, cond.

Presier 20007 (M) (AAD) TT: 68:41

I Pagliacci, Ruggiero Leoncavallo's verismo masterpiece, has fared particularly well on recordings. Indeed, there are many fine stereophonic versions from which to choose. Nevertheless, there are many compelling reasons to consider adding this 1930 La Scala recording to one's collection.

The recording, originally released by Columbia on eighteen 78rpm sides, offers a valuable document of an earlier and quite different era of operatic performance. Listen, for example, to the beautiful portamenti employed by the strings of the wonderful La Scala Orchestra. Quite striking as well are the vocal timbres of the principal singers, featuring the pronounced and rapid vibrato that was so common in the first half of the 20th century. It is also a pleasure to listen to the way these singers—all Italian—relish each and every syllable of Leoncavallo's text. These are all qualities that have greatly disappeared in our modern, jet-setting operatic world.

Additionally although this is a studio recording, it has the atmosphere of a live performance. Much of the credit for this must go to conductor Lorenzo Molajoli, who leads a reading that crackles with energy and momentum. The gorgeous rendition of the Intermezzo demonstrates that Molajoli could be superb in more reflective moments as well. The La Scala Chorus and Orchestra respond in outstanding fashion to Molajoli's direction. Throughout, perhaps it is possible to discern the mark of Arturo Toscanini—the man who led Pagliacci's 1892 premiere and who ended his second tenure as La Scala Music Director the year before this recording.

The principal singers, important Italian artists during the period between the two World Wars, throw themselves into the drama. Tenor Francesco Merli, in vibrant and powerful voice, is a glorious Canio. It is clear that this imaginative artist put a great deal of thought into his characterization. For example, the light touch Merli employs in his initial address to the villagers makes the sudden revelation of Canio's jealous nature all the more frightening. Indeed, Merli is superb throughout in depicting the tempest that is constantly simmering in Canio's heart. Meri's "Vesti la giubba" is notable for its declamatory power and nobility, proceeding to a stunning climax. The final confrontation between Canio and Nedda is one of the most hair-raising on discs. All in all, I certainly count Merli's Canio among the finest.

Perhaps soprano Rosetta Pampanini's upper register does not possess the ideal bloom and warmth. But the voice is secure throughout, and her characterization, like Merli's, is highly involved. The duet with Silvio, for example, is here more than just a lyrical interlude. Both Pampanini and the wonderful baritone Gino Vanelli portray the fierce sexual attraction that exists between the two lovers. The desperation of their situation makes Nedda's defiance of Canio in the final scene all the more credible and tragic.

There will probably be a greater difference of opinion regarding Carlo Galeffi's Tonio. There is no question that he possessed one of the most lovely of baritone voices, replete with a gorgeous top that provides a thrilling conclusion to the "Prologue." Some, however, may be put off by his interpretive choices. In emphasizing Tonio's emotional instability, Galeffi frequently resorts to extra-musical interjections that might grow comical (if not tiresome) upon repeated listening. Nevertheless, Galeffi's vocalism is superb, and he is certainly never boring.

The fine character tenor Giuseppe Nessi offers luxury casting as Beppe. The transfers of this 78rpm recording offer some surface noise, but excellent definition as well for both the voices and orchestra. Certainly, no one would mistake the sonics of this 1930 Pagliacci for a modern recording. Nevertheless, the sound is more than adequate to allow enjoyment of a performance that is captivating from first note to last. If you have never heard this Pagliacci, do give it a try. I don't think you will be disappointed.

K.M.(May 2001)