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ClassicsOnline Home » LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci (Bjorling / Angeles) (1953)
By Derek Lim
The Flying Inkpot
International Record Review
BBC Music Magazine
Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
The reputation of Ruggiero Leoncavallo is sadly linked to
just two works: his song Mattinata, beloved of any aspiring tenor voice, and
his two-act opera Pagliacci (1892). His other stage works include La Bohème,
unfairly overlooked and neglected in preference to Puccini’s almost
contemporaneous setting, the wonderfully evocative sounding Zazà (1900),
Chatterton (circa 1876 revised 1896) and Der Roland von Berlin (1904). It is
possible that the very success Pagliacci has enjoyed since its première has made
his other works seems less convincing. Be that as it may, his one great stage
success has never waned in popularity. As his own librettist, the composer made
highly effective use of a play within a play (he claimed the story was based on
a true event from his childhood), and the tuneful and impassioned music never
fails to grip an audience. The opera, first given in Milan under the young
Toscanini, remains possibly the best example of the Italian verismo style, that
realistic school of writing, largely concerned with real flesh and blood, a
On record, Pagliacci has always been popular, as witnessed
by complete recordings sung in English, French, German, Italian, Romanian and
Russian. The first ‘complete’ recording, made in 1907, was supervised by the
composer himself. Furthermore, it has always proved a success commercially but
sadly, all too often, it is an excuse to deliver the score ‘can belto’ and
blatantly to ignore what Leoncavallo took trouble to mark in his score. It is
exactly the former approach that invariably earns verismo operas a bad
reputation. Observe the markings and the work comes over as far from crude,
indeed one can appreciate that it is a genuine masterpiece of the genre.
At the time this present recording was made in 1953, the
Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles had not sung the rôle of Nedda on
stage, and her interpretation may seem possibly a little on the cool side and
lacking in south Italian warmth. Nevertheless, she really sings the rôle. The
choice of Jussi Björling as the tenor Canio is interesting in that it was not a
rôle he sang much in the opera house. His interpretation is far removed from
the ranting voice and over-dramatic portrayal all too common with more Italian
tenors. The Swede is superbly musical and by observing Leoncavallo’s markings,
most moving, noble and believable, so in Björling’s hands the character of
Canio is no bully but one of dignity. The stellar casting of two of the
Metropolitan Opera’s finest baritones of the day in the rôles of the deformed
clown Tonio and Nedda’s lover Silvio, was indeed greatly to the benefit of the
recording. Leonard Warren’s vocal prowess is amply illustrated with those
magnificent top A flats in the Prologue, for the like of which one would give
so much today. From a dramatic point of view Warren may not make enough of the
jealous nature of Tonio’s character. Robert Merrill gives a warm and
seductively sung Silvio in his own characteristic manner, being especially good
in the love duet with Nedda, whilst Paul Franke offers an attractively sung
Beppe. The choral contribution, as directed by Robert Shaw, is first-rate.
Possibly the less than totally convincing conducting of Renato Cellini may fail
to make the overall performance tingle with the last ounce of dramatic
excitement but there is nothing vulgar or crude in his reading of the score.
Unusually for the time, the final words - “La commedia è finita!” - are spoken
correctly by Tonio, not by Canio as so often the case.
Critical opinion of this performance has generally been
positive. The 1955 edition of The Record Guide said, “it is the most enjoyable
performance we have ever heard”. The authors felt the cast, primarily taken
from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, “displayed the generally higher
standards of taste in Italian opera, which still prevail at that institution”.
The reviewer in the April 1954 issue of The Gramophone (Philip Hope-Wallace)
commented that “Victoria de los Angeles is in many ways a most beautiful Nedda
– quite an oddity these days”, and felt Björling conveyed the necessary irony
for the part of Canio. Overall he much liked the performance, even though he
felt the delivery of the Italian text was not always dramatically conveyed.
Whilst the balance between voice and orchestra may favour the former, that was
the prevailing fashion in the days of mono recording.
The Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles was born in
Barcelona in November 1923, later studying in that city. Her formal début was
in 1945 as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. After winning the Geneva singing
competition in 1947 she was invited by the BBC in London the following year to
take part in radio performances of Falla’s La vida breve, an event which
aroused great interest and critical acclaim. She then appeared at the Paris
Opéra, Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan, New
York in three successive years from 1949 onwards. She later sang at Bayreuth in
1961 but thereafter began to confine her appearances to the concert hall. Her
voice was one of great lyrical beauty and conveyed infinite tonal contrasts
with an unusually warm lower register. She recorded extensively in both opera
and song, particularly in the latter area, Spanish music of many centuries. She
continued to appear in concert until her mid-sixties.
The Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960) was an exact
contemporary of his baritone colleague Leonard Warren. Born in Stora Tuna in
the district of Dalarna, as a boy he toured and recorded with the family
quartet, in addition to visiting the United States. His adult teachers were his
father David, John Forsell and the Scottish tenor Joseph Hislop. He was a
member of the Royal Opera in Stockholm from 1930 onwards but two years later
began his international career in Germany, followed by Vienna (1936), the
Metropolitan Opera in New York (1938) and Covent Garden the following year.
Widely regarded as the foremost ‘Italian’ tenor of his day in the spinto rôles
of Puccini and Verdi, Björling also excelled in French opera. His work was highly
respected for its artistic qualities, even if his acting ability was somewhat
stilted. He recorded extensively from the mid-1930s until his early death in
1960. His poor health in later years was caused by heart problems. His ten
complete operatic recordings include Il trovatore (Naxos 8.110240-41).
Leonard Warren (1911-1960), born in New York of Russian
immigrant parents, began his career in the chorus of Radio City Music Hall.
After winning the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air in 1938, he then studied
briefly in Italy, before his formal début as Paolo in Simon Boccanegra in
January 1939. During 22 seasons at the Met, Warren sang over six hundred
performances with the company, with whom he became the the principal baritone
in Italian repertoire. His overseas appearances included Rio de Janeiro and
Buenos Aires (between 1942-46), Mexico City (1948-49: when he was conducted by
Renato Cellini in four Verdi operas), Milan (1953-54) and a concert tour of
Russia in 1958 in addition to three opera performances. He collapsed on stage
during a performance of La forza del destino in March 1960 and died in the
wings almost immediately. His huge, resonant voice with its easy upper register
was ideally suited to Verdi, a number of whose operas he recorded, including
Rigoletto (Naxos 8.110148-49) and Il Trovatore (Naxos 8.110240-41)
Brooklyn-born Robert Merrill (b. 1917) first studied with
his mother. Following his stage début in 1943, he won the Met Auditions of the
Air, which brought about his first appearance in that house in December 1945.
It was here that the larger part of Merrill’s career was spent over a period of
thirty years, appearing in nearly 750 performances of 21 rôles. He flirted
briefly with Hollywood before returning to the opera house. Generally considered
to have possessed one of the finest lyric baritone voices of his time, he also
sang in opera in San Francisco, London and Venice. He recorded extensively,
including many of the principal Verdi baritone rôles.
Paul Franke (b. 1920) was born in Boston and studied at the
New England Conservatory. Following his début at the Metropolitan in December
1948, he would become a valued member of this house and give nearly 1500
performances of some sixty or more rôles, virtually all in comprimario rôles.
Conductor Renato Cellini (1912-1967) was born in Turin into
a theatrical family. He became a child prodigy as a cellist, giving his first
recital aged just ten. Later he would learn the piano and organ. At his native
city’s Conservatorium he studied composition with Alfano and Ghedini, later
working in Italian opera houses as a repetiteur and conductor. He worked with
Glyndebourne Festival Opera after the war but then moved to New York where he
worked with the musical staff at the Metropolitan from 1948 until 1954. He also
conducted a handful of opera performances with the company, including four with
Leonard Warren with whom Cellini became a close friend (Warren was godfather to
Cellini’s daughter). He suffered a heart attack in September 1950 and his health
was never robust after that date. Between 1954 and 1964 Cellini served as Music
Director of the New Orleans Opera Association. He also conducted opera in
Mexico City (1948-49), Cincinnati and Caracas, Venezuela. He conducted three
further operas for RCA/BMG – Cavalleria rusticana, Rigoletto (Naxos
8.110148-49) and Il trovatore (Naxos 8.110240-41) – in addition to accompanying
singers in operatic arias.
the orchestral introduction, with its themes of the clown’s tragedy, of love
and of jealousy, Tonio comes forward, seeking the indulgence of the audience.
He explains that the coming play is true, not fiction, and written from the
memory of events that still affect the writer. It is a story of love, hatred
and sorrow. The audience should understand that actors are human, with feelings
like those of the audience. He calls on the actors to begin.
the curtain rises, a trumpet call is heard and the sound of a drum. The people
of the village, in their best clothes for the Feast of the Assumption, gather
to see the players arrive.
standing on his cart, announces the coming entertainment, promising the sight
of Pagliaccio’s revenge and of the intrigues and discomfiture of the clown
Tonio. Tonio makes to help Nedda down from the cart and is cuffed by Canio, who
takes her by the arm. Beppe drags the cart away, while Tonio threatens revenge.
A group of villagers invite the players to drink with them, but Tonio alone
refuses. The villagers suggest that Tonio wants to stay behind to pay court to
Nedda, which forces a reluctant smile from Canio.
tells them that it is better not to joke like that, because acting and real
life are not the same. On the stage Pagliaccio catches his wife with her lover,
a subject for comedy, but if Nedda seriously were to be caught out like that it
would be quite another matter. The villagers ask him if he is serious, but
Canio tells them he adores his wife, whom he now kisses.
the villagers welcome the sound of the bagpipes, but it is time for Vespers.
Canio tells those who have invited him to wait for a moment, while he goes
behind the stage erected in the village square.
the sound of the bells, the villagers prepare to go to the church for Vespers.
is left alone and thinks that Canio may discover her secret love. She welcomes
the mid-August sunshine and the birds, that her mother understood so well.
delights in the birds, singing and flying through the sky, towards the
realisation of their desires, whatever may come, as her thoughts do.
is interrupted by Tonio, who has been listening. She laughs at him.
tells her that, although he may be ugly and deformed, he has his own dream and
is in love with her. She finds the idea ridiculous and tells him to keep his
desires for the play and his simpering for the stage. He tells her not to laugh
and insists that she hear him. He tries to kiss her and she strikes him with a
whip. He goes, vowing revenge, while she declares that she is not afraid of
him, ugly as he is in mind as in body.
appears, rebuked by Nedda for his imprudence. He tells her that Canio and Beppe
are in the tavern, but she explains what has just happened with Tonio.
begs her to stay with him, when the players move on the next day. He tries to
persuade her, if it is true that she never loved Canio, to escape with him that
pleads with him not to disturb her life by such temptation, as he continues to
urge her. They are observed by Tonio, who slips away to the tavern.
continues, declaring that Nedda has bewitched him and recalling the times they
have spent together. Nedda gives way, ready to yield completely to his pleas.
has found Canio, whom he now leads to the scene. They hear the lovers plan to
elope that night, but Silvio, unrecognised by Canio, makes his escape. Canio
chases after him, while Tonio expresses his satisfaction. Returning, Canio
presses Nedda to reveal the name of her lover, but she refuses to divulge it.
He threatens her with a dagger, but is restrained by Beppe, who urges Canio to
make ready for the play, as the people are leaving the church. Tonio tells Canio
that it is better to pretend and that he will watch out for Nedda’s lover, who
will be in the audience. Beppe urges Canio to make ready and tells Tonio to
bang the drum.
is distraught and finds his task hard, to play the clown in these circumstances.
must don his costume and make-up to amuse the public, whatever his own
the orchestral interlude themes from the Prologue are heard.
comes forward sounding the trumpet, while Tonio bangs the drum. Beppe then
arranges the benches for the audience, who now come excitedly in, urged on by
Tonio as they take their places. Silvio is among them, taking a seat in the
front row and then moving to exchange a word with Nedda, who is collecting
ticket money. She tells him to be careful but that Canio has not recognised
him. The audience is impatient, while Beppe tries to deal with them. Eventually
he and Nedda go behind the stage. A bell sounds and the curtain is drawn back.
scene is a little room with two side-doors and a window in the background.
There is a table and two chairs. Nedda, as Columbina, is seated at the table,
from time to time looking round impatiently to the door. She stands and looks
through the window, walking up and down impatiently. Her husband Pagliaccio is
late coming back, and why is that idiot Taddeo not there.
hears the plucked strings of a guitar from outside and with a cry of joy runs
to the window, serenaded by Beppe as Arlecchino.
signals to him that the coast is clear, but Tonio, as Taddeo, comes in and
declares his love for her; her husband is away and now they are alone.
Ironically he praises her purity, as white as snow. Meanwhile Arlecchino has
made his way into the room, carrying a bottle, which he puts on the table. He
takes Taddeo by the ear and gives him a kick, turning him out.
and Arlecchino embrace. He sits down at the table, while Columbina sets two
places and puts a chicken on the table. They are interrupted by the return of
Taddeo, announcing the arrival of Pagliaccio. Columbina tells Arlecchino to go
and he leaps out of the window, telling her to pour a draught from the bottle
into Pagliaccio’s drink, before he goes to sleep. She promises to join him that
night, overheard by Pagliaccio.
reproaches Columbina, who declares that he is mad or drunk. He sees two places
set at the table, but she tells him the other place was for Taddeo. Called in,
Taddeo pretends to be afraid, assuring Pagliaccio that his wife is pure and
chaste, to the amusement of the audience. Pagliaccio insists on knowing the
to restrain himself any longer, Canio declares that he is no longer Pagliaccio,
now demanding retribution, blood to wipe out disgrace. He reminds Nedda how he
found her, an orphan, almost dead from hunger, and gave her a name and his
love. The audience comments on the realism of the scene, while Canio continues
his reproaches. Nedda coldly tells him to let her go, if she is unworthy of
him. He will have none of it, but must know the name of her lover, as he seeks,
seemingly, to return to the play again. Nedda tries to continue her part and
assures him that it was the timid, harmless Arlecchino who was with her. Canio,
though, accuses her of infidelity and demands the name of her lover or her
life, but she refuses to tell him, as the audience begins to realise that the
scene is real, not acting.
refuses to name her lover. Beppe tries to intervene, but is held back by Tonio.
Canio seizes a knife from the table, as Nedda tries to escape among the
audience. Canio seizes her and strikes her with the knife. As she falls, she
calls on Silvio for help. He cries out and is stabbed to the heart by Canio,
who is disarmed by the audience, Tonio declares that the play is over – La
commedia è finita.
Last Albums Viewed
LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci (Bjorling / Angeles) (1953)