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Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana; Leoncavallo: Pagliacci / Karajan

Release Date: 03/11/2008 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 001076609  
Composer:  Pietro MascagniRuggero Leoncavallo
Performer:  Jon VickersPeter GlossopRaina KabaivanskaGianfranco Cecchele,   ... 
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Milan Teatro alla Scala OrchestraMilan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MASCAGNI Cavalleria rusticana. 1 LEONCAVALLO I pagliacci Herbert von Karajan, cond; Gianfranco Cecchele ( Turiddu ); 1 Fiorenza Cossotto ( Santuzza ); 1 Giangiacomo Guelfi ( Alfio ); Read more class="SUPER12">1 Jon Vickers ( Canio ); Raina Kabaivanska ( Nedda ); Peter Glossop ( Tonio ); Rolando Panerai ( Silvio ); La Scala O & C DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 001076609 (DVD: 147:20 Text and Translation)

A very fine Cavalleria rusticana coupled with a truly great Pagliacci combine to make this a very worthy DVD. These performances were filmed in 1968, three years after Karajan’s famous DG audio recordings of both works built around the Scala forces and tenor Carlo Bergonzi, recorded after Scala performances. Those recordings revealed Karajan to be a master of the verismo style, combining beautiful long phrase building with rhythmic tension and incisiveness (not qualities always associated with his work). Given that Bergonzi was not a physically imposing actor (actually, he was a very poor actor) and that the concept for these performances was to be something more than the filming of a staged performance, Karajan made the decision to replace him. In Cecchele he found a more-than-adequate substitute, though without the vocal glory of Bergonzi to be sure. In Jon Vickers, Karajan chose one of the greatest portrayers of Canio in the second half of the 20th century.

Both operas were produced specifically for the film. The La Scala sets were taken out and moved to an arena in Milan (an ice rink, actually) so that enough space could be created to re-design the staging specifically for film. The music was prerecorded, so the singers are lip-synching (that is only rarely noticeable, except in the big choral crowd scenes, where the chorus often doesn’t appear to be singing at all—which is quite effective). Each opera was then redirected for the medium of film.

Let’s begin with I pagliacci , because it is the best reason to get this video. Karajan himself did the direction for television, and except for a few fussy moments (the “meaningful” messages superimposed over the “Prologue” being one example) it is thrillingly dramatic. The frequent use of close-ups would not have worked if we had singers playing to the gallery, but everyone in the cast seems able to act with subtlety, and the emotions throughout are terrifyingly real. Nowhere more than with Vickers’s Canio. What a gigantic portrayal this is—and how magnificently sung as well. We are fond of noting that Vickers did not have a traditional Italianate voice, but he sings this music with a perfect sense of style, and with his uniquely rich and varied sound that always seems to settle on the right color for the moment. This is a performance of, to be honest, historic dimension. Kabaivanska lightens her voice marvelously for Nedda, and shows herself to be an equally strong actor. In fact, all of the singers are superb—Glossop manages to scare you and make you feel sorry for Tonio at the same time, and Panerai sings the big duet with Nedda glowingly. The conducting is, as noted above, magnificent, and the Scala forces play with inspiration and a quality not usually associated with them. This Pagliacci involves you from its first chords—and is in my view one of the classic opera films ever made.

The Cavalleria rusticana is very good—but not on that level. Cecchele is no Vickers, and no Bergonzi either. He acts the role very well, and cuts a handsome figure as Turiddu. He sings the role with abandon, and musically—but the voice itself lacks distinction or any special beauty. It is slightly hard-toned, though never unpleasantly so. I do not mean to imply that he is anything less than good. However, there is a reason that he was not one of the world’s leading Italian tenors of his era, but rather was high in the second rank. Cossotto is a fabulous Santuzza, vocally and dramatically, and Guelfi is a magnificent Alfio. While we had Warren and Merrill reigning at the Met, Guelfi and Gobbi were the leading baritones in the Italian repertoire in Italy, and the more I encounter him the more I realize that we missed an important artist here. Once again, as in Pagliacci , the conducting is both beautiful and impassioned.

Given the qualities offered by this video, there are some silly aspects that one can only regret. The overall presence of Karajan is one (many of the orchestral moments—preludes and intermezzos—focus on his face rather heavily, and he is identified on the screen as conductor, director, and artistic supervisor). The Maestro also inserts himself into some of the crowd scenes, as if he were Hitchcock. Another silliness is the claim made by the film that Pagliacci was inspired by a murder the young Leoncavallo witnessed as a child, leaving such a vivid impression on him that he then wrote the opera. The truth is that Leoncavallo never witnessed any murder—his father was a judge in the trial of a murderer in a similar dramatic situation. Some of the shots in the film are a bit too precious (too many close-ups, for instance, tend to de-humanize the characters and to diminish the relationships between them). The sound quality, heard in PCM Stereo, is well balanced and natural, and the production values are good throughout, though the English titles are occasionally a bit stilted. In the end, I come back to the power of these performances—particularly the Pagliacci . You should not miss this video.

FANFARE: Henry Fogel

DVD-VIDEO NTSC 073 4389 |G|H|
Picture Format: 4:3
Subtitles: Italian/English/German/French/Spanish/Chinese
A production of UNITEL, Munich
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Works on This Recording

Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni
Performer:  Jon Vickers (Tenor), Peter Glossop (Baritone), Raina Kabaivanska (Soprano)
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra,  Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1890; Italy 
I Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo
Performer:  Gianfranco Cecchele (Tenor), Fiorenza Cossotto (Mezzo Soprano), Giangiacomo Guelfi (Baritone)
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra,  Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Italy 

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