Leoncavallo I Pagliacci; Mascagni Cavalleria Rusticana
When these recordings first appeared, their didactic pretensions stimulated resistance. In Cavalleria rusticana it was as though the conductor had been through the orchestral parts doubly underlining every expression mark, while in Pagliacci he had censored all those naughty high notes not to be found in the composer's autograph score. Fortunately, both operations seem less obtrusive now than they did ten years ago: the over-insistence of conductors is something we have lived with long enough for this instance to appear relatively mild, and the traditional high notes have persisted in subsequent performances of Pagliacci simply because experience has found them to be more effective. Nor has it become general practice to have Tonio sing ''La commedia e finita'' as indicated in the score, the ineffectiveness of a monotone being amply demonstrated in this recording. Other criticisms of the performances remain. It is a curious anomaly, for example, that the Prologue to Pagliacci should be so revered in theory that the traditional A flat and G are banished from its presence and yet so little cared for in practice that it is given one of the dullest, least imaginative performances in its history on records.
This is by Kari Nurmela, of whom at one time great things were expected. Instead, among the baritones, it is Thomas Allen, the Silvio, who has made the progress and who carries the distinction here. His singing of ''E allor perche'' in the love duet is one of the finest things of all. The baritone in Cavalleria rusticana, Matteo Manuguerra, has impressive power and quality but a somewhat inexpressive style (and in his song is upstaged by the whip which cracks ferociously at no more than an arm's length in front of its owner). The two sopranos, Caballe and Scotto, have some lovely moments and both are strong in dramatic commitment: not ideally cast, even so, for Santuzza needs more body in the middle register and more steel at the top, while Nedda should have a more girlish quality, less of the mature prima donna, and much greater firmness on the louder high notes.
Carreras gives generously of voice and emotion in both of his roles—they are among his best achievements on records. More could be done with solos such as the Siciliana and ''No, Pagliaccio non son'', but only with a conductor more sympathetic to the enabling traditions. Muti himself is best with orchestral work and choruses: outstanding, for instance, are all of the choruses in Pagliacci. It is in such passages that he presents an interesting and viable alternative to Karajan's spacious manner and refined style (DG); and both of these versions, I would say, are more distinctive than the Patane/Gavazzeni Decca set, despite the presence of Pavarotti and the remarkable Santuzza of Varady.'