Leoncavallo I Pagliacci; Mascagni Cavalleria Rusticana
These two sets place us in a quandary; both have so much to offer that choice between them is extremely difficult. Of the famous Karajan set, opulent in sound, big in scale, one might comment, ''manipulated but magnificent'' or perhaps ''magnificent but manipulated''. At the time of listening, one is quite carried away by the grandeur and passion of the readings. It is only later that one begins to call into question the extremely slow tempos and the almost too effusive orchestra. Don't the dramas then tend to become ponderous and Germanic rather than Italianate, even if the presence of the Scala chorus and orchestra lend them authenticity? They are also present on the EMI performances of some ten years earlier. Here the sound is much more confined, though rather more immediate, and mono. Serafin conducts swifter-moving performances, yet ones quite as notable as Karajan's for pointing up relevant detail. All four interpretations carry with them a real sense of the theatre and are quite free from studio routine.
It is just as difficult to choose between the casts. Callas sang Santuzza only as a 15-year-old (in her native Greece), Nedda not at all on stage. Yet, as is her way, she lives the characters more vividly than anyone. The sadness and anguish she brings to Santuzza's unhappy plight are at their most compelling at ''io piango'' in ''Voi lo sapete'' and at ''Turiddu mi tolse'' in her encounter with Alfio, where the pain in Santuzza's heart is expressed in almost unbearable terms. As Nedda, she differentiates marvellously between the pensiveness of her aria, the passion of her duet with Silvio, and the playfulness of her
Her partner in both operas is di Stefano. They work up a huge lather of passion in the big Cavalleria duet, and the tenor is wholly believable as the caddish Turiddu. That I had remembered, but not the immediacy of emotion of his Canio; here it is the tenor's turn to evoke pity and display anguish. Di Stefano does it as well as any Canio on record without quite having the heroic tone for the latter part of the opera. The same can be said of Bergonzi on the Karajan version, but he carries all before him by the nobility and dignity of his singing here. He is a little too upstanding for Turiddu; one cannot believe this nice guy would betray Santuzza, but again the singing is a model of style, and there is no lack of feeling in Bergonzi's reading of the role. His Santuzza is Fiorenza Cossotto; famous in the part over a long period and justifiably so. She hasn't Callas's subtlety of inflexion, but the big wodges of secure tone and the sheer emotional content of her singing carry all before them. Nedda on DG is sung by Joan Carlyle, at the peak of her form in the mid-1960s. She catches precisely the airy nature of her ballad and sings with Italianate timbre in the duet with Silvio. That role is ideally taken in both performances by Rolando Panerai, vibrant and sensuous of voice, suitably impassioned in manner.
Panerai is also a strong Alfio on the Serafin set, but Guelfi, with his huge voice, is possibly even better suited to this macho part. I hesitate to choose between the two Tonios both pertinently cast. Taddei plays the part a little more comically, Gobbi more menancingly; both sing the Prologue with that bite on the consonants that drives home the message about art aping life. Monti and Benelli are attractive Beppes. So both sets have casts that would be hard to equal today though the Pretre Pagliacci (Philips CD 411 484-2PH, 2/86) comes near to doing so.
I couldn't possibly recommend the Karajan above the Serafin or the other way round. Callas or Karajan enthusiasts will have no difficulty making their choice—for admirers of the latter DG generously include a selection of opera intermezzos played with verve if not very tidily by the Berlin Philharmonic. Others may be guided by quality of sound. With either you will be ensured hours of memorable listening.'