About this Recording
8.111024 - LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci (Callas, di Stefano, Serafin) (1954)

Ruggero Leoncavallo (1858 -1919)

This recording of Pagliacci was made by EMI at La Scala, Milan in June 1954, some eight months after Cavalleria rusticana, and first published in April 1955 in Britain by Columbia and in the United States by Angel. Callas’s Nedda in Pagliacci was the fifth complete recording she took part in under the aegis of La Scala, although she did not sing it on stage, either there or anywhere else. Made eight months after Cavalleria rusticana, at the time Walter Legge, EMI’s record producer, carried away by the sensational success that January of a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor directed and conducted by Karajan, with the newly slimmed Callas, determined to secure them to record an opera together. Since, unfortunately, Callas had already recorded Lucia, he offered Pagliacci instead, but Karajan declined.

Pagliacci, first performed at the Dal Verme, Milan in 1892, was conducted by the 24-year-old Arturo Toscanini; the cast included Fiorello Giraud [Canio], Adelina Stehle [Nedda] and Victor Maurel [Tonio]. The great French baritone Maurel, creator of Iago and Falstaff, regarded by Verdi as one of the greatest singing actors, persuaded Leoncavallo to let Tonio, not Canio, have the last words: ‘la commedia è finita’ [‘the play is over’]. Since the story is a play within a play, and Tonio introduces the opera with the prologue, it seems more fitting to finish it with Tonio. Canio has been interpreted by many famous tenors since the time of Caruso [his most popular rôle at the Metropolitan]. Not only is it effective vocally but it is also ideal for a mature seasoned artist; Gigli and Domingo both over sixty were still giving memorable impersonations. Both also undertook Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana in a double bill; Gigli did so at his farewell in 1954 when he was 64. Rarely, however, do famous sopranos sing both Santuzza and Nedda sequentially [although Victoria de los Angeles did so on once at a Covent Garden gala]; Santuzza calls for a more dramatic voice, while Nedda needs a soubrette more in the operetta style.

It seems appropriate therefore that Callas’s figure should so radically have changed in the period separating the recordings. In August 1953, at the time Cavalleria rusticana was made, she was as Biki, the Milanese couturier, remembers: ‘fat, clumsy and badly dressed: she wore some extraordinary plastic earrings’. By the following summer she had lost some sixty pounds, becoming chic and svelte - even her hair had become blonde. Just as she had slimmed and her appearance changed, so inevitably her voice too had become thinner, less steady, and harder in tone; it had begun to lose the bloom of youth, as if a veneer had been wiped off it. But this may seem not inappropriate for Nedda, who in duet with Tonio one minute is shrewishly chiding him: ‘Eh! Dite maestro Tonio! La schiena oggi vi prude’ [‘Tell me master Tonio, have you an itching back… ], then the next minute coyly turning to Silvio, ‘a questa’ora che imprudenza’ [‘how rash at this hour’]. In the Act II commedia dell’arte scene, she demonstrates her musical skill, not just by changing the colour of her voice, but so responsive is it it hardly needs any support. We can almost see her Colombina delicately tripping the measures of the minuet; then, in response to Pagliaccio becoming the enraged Canio, and his insistent demand that she identify her lover, how vividly she turns into Nedda the termagant; there’s no need to have to understand a word of Italian, so effectively does she create the character through the music.

No soprano, records suggest, could have been less like Callas than Augusta Oltrabella [1897-1981]; a noted Italian lyric-dramatic soprano of the verismo school. Although Oltrabella may not have meant it as a compliment, she puts her finger on precisely what makes Callas so exceptional. ‘Verismo was not for her because, despite what everyone says, she was an actress in the expression of the music … [and] in verismo the music is often secondary.’ Indeed, it was Callas’s prodigious musical skill that makes her unique, not her looks, her acting, or Onassis. She was, indeed still is on records, unique not only because of her voice, which at its best was a characteristic sounding instrument; but her musicianship, allied to a consummate singing technique, enabled her to encompass a rich and varied repertory. As we can hear on any of her best recordings, which are now coming into the public domain.

Giuseppe Di Stefano, born in 1921 near Catania, Sicily, had a brilliant but short career. His was one of the most beautiful lyric tenor voices of the last century. He began singing light music then, following a brief period of study with the baritone Luigi Montesanto, made his opera début in 1946 as Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon at Reggio Emilia, after which his rise to fame was rapid. In 1947 he appeared at La Scala, Milan, also as Des Grieux, and in 1948 at the Metropolitan, New York, as the Duke in Rigoletto. At first his repertory included Fenton in Falstaff, Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, Alfredo in La Traviata and Faust, but it did not take long before he began undertaking heavier rôles, such as Cavaradossi, Don José in Carmen, Radames in Aida, Canio in Pagliacci and even Alvaro in La forza del destino. Sadly the great years of his career were soon over, and by 1961, trying to make more out of his voice than nature had put in, he made his last appearance at La Scala. From 1944 for HMV he recorded songs and arias, and from 1953 for Angel/Columbia, with Callas, Edgardo, Arturo, Cavaradossi, Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana, Canio, the Duke, Manrico in Il trovatore, Rodolfo, Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera and Des Grieux in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

The career of Tito Gobbi (1913-1984), born at Bassano di Grappa in the Veneto, lasted more than forty years. His was a first-class Italian baritone with a characteristic timbre in the Titta Ruffo style. He made his début in 1935 at Gubbio singing a bass rôle, Rodolfo in La sonnambula, but this was a one off, and by the next year at La Scala, he became a baritone. Within a few years his repertory embraced Germont in La traviata, Silvio in Pagliacci, Lescaut, Marcello in La Bohème, Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, Ford in Falstaff, De Siriex in Fedora, Baldassare in Cilea’s L’Arlesiana and Michonnet in Adriana Lecouvreur, and he also sang Melot in Wagner’s Tristano and Gunther in Il crepuscolo degli dei, Jochanaan in Strauss’s Salome and Wozzeck, as well as a sizeable repertory of then modern operas. His international career began after World War II at leading theatres throughout the opera world, undertaking many of what were then famous impersonations, including Rigoletto, Posa, Iago, Renato, Macbeth, Nabucco, Simon Boccanegra, Rance in La fanciulla del west, Scarpia, Falstaff and Michele in Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi, both of which he sang on more than one occasion the same evening. In older music, as Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia or Don Giovanni, which he appeared in at Salzburg under Furtwängler in 1950, although his stage presence was imposing, his recordings reveal his singing was not stylish. Over the years inevitably his voice became less responsive and in the upper range not infrequently he sang flat. As more than twenty films he made show, he was a good-looking man with considerable histrionic skill. His recording career lasted from 1942 and his first 78s for HMV, to LP sets for EMI, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, Scarpia, Amonasro, Rigoletto, Renato and Figaro, with Callas, and Falstaff under Karajan, to 1978, when for Decca/London, he sang Chim-Fen in Leoni’s L’oracolo.

The baritone Rolando Panerai [b.1924], born at Campi Bisenzio near Florence, had a long and distinguished career. After completing his studies in Florence and Milan, with Armani and Tess, he made his debut at the Comunale, Florence in 1946 as Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor. Thereafter his progress was rapid and extensive: in 1947 he appeared at the San Carlo, Naples; 1952 at La Scala, Milan; 1957 at the Salzburg Festival; 1958 at San Francisco and 1960 at Covent Garden, London. He sang elsewhere throughout Italy, and in Austria, Germany and France. His substantial repertory included Apollo in Gluck’s Alceste, the High Priest in Samson e Dalila, Mozart’s and Rossini’s Figaro, Masetto in Don Giovanni, Guglielmo in Così fan tutte, Paolo in Simon Boccanegra, Marcello in La Bohème, di Luna in Il trovatore, Silvio, Germont in La Traviata and in 1962 at La Scala he created the title rôle in Turchi’s Il buon soldato Svejk. Later in his career, in traditional fashion, he graduated from Ford to Falstaff and undertook Don Pasquale and Dulcamara in L’elisir d’amore. In a 1950 RAI broadcast he is Amfortas in Parsifal with Callas’s Kundry and, nearly half a century later, Germont in a telecast of Traviata conducted by Mehta. His voice was an attractive sounding but lyric instrument. For EMI [Columbia/Angel] with Callas, as well as Silvio, he recorded Alfio, di Luna and Marcello.

Tullio Serafin (1878-1968), born at Rottanova di Cavarzere, near Venice, was one of the great conductors of Italian opera. After studying at the Milan Conservatory at first he was a violinist in the orchestra at La Scala, Milan, then in 1900 at Ferrara began a career as conductor. Engagements followed in Turin and Rome. Through more than half a century he appeared at Covent Garden, London (1907, 1931, 1959- 60), La Scala, Milan (1910-1914, 1917, 1918, 1940, 1946-7), Colón, Buenos Aires (1914, 1919, 1920, 1928, 1937, 1938, 1949, 1951), San Carlo, Naples (1922-3, 1940-1, 1949-58), Metropolitan, New York (1924-34), the Rome Opera (1934-43, 1962), Lyric Opera, Chicago (1955, 1957-58), and numerous other opera houses in Italy and abroad. His repertory was vast. He conducted conventional and unconventional operas as well as introducing a variety of new works and worked with numerous famous singers, including Battistini, Chaliapin, Ponselle, Gigli, Callas and Sutherland. His recording career was exhaustive and embraced the HMV (1939) Verdi Requiem as well as both Angel/Columbia Normas (1954 and 1960) with Callas.

Michael Scott
is the author of Maria Meneghini Callas

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