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Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci / De Los Angeles, Bjorling

Leoncavallo / Cellini
Release Date: 02/09/2010 
Label:  Brilliant Classics   Catalog #: 94016  
Composer:  Ruggero Leoncavallo
Performer:  Robert MerrillJussi BjörlingVictoria de los AngelesGeorge Cehanovsky,   ... 
Conductor:  Renato Cellini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  RCA Victor Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Mono 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

LEONCAVALLO Pagliacci Renato Cellini, cond; Victoria de los Angeles ( Nedda ); Jussi Björling ( Canio ); Leonard Warren ( Tonio ); Robert Merrill ( Silvio ); Paul Franke ( Beppe ); et al.; RCA Victor O; Robert Shaw Ch; Columbus Boy Ch BRILLIANT 94016 Read more (69:23) Live: New York 1/1953

This is one of the great achievements of 20th-century recording history. Since its first release more than half a century ago, Renato Cellini’s Pagliacci has been praised for its unsurpassed singing, its dramatic intensity, and its transparent sound.

Jussi Björling is the highlight of the show; his Canio is ever-gripping and riveting. In “Vesti la giubba,” his voice is powerful yet of rare intensity. Leonard Warren as Tonio and Robert Merrill as Silvio are both in great shape. There’s no doubt that the male cast on this set is one for the ages.

Victoria de los Angeles’s sumptuous voice never really convinced me in any of the roles she sang, but here she puts down a very fine Nedda. She adds a distinct tragedy to her character that emphasizes the underlying disaster that is at hand. Her pitch is accurate and her voice full-bodied, even seducing at times.

The RCA Victor Orchestra dates from better days, when recording companies and radio stations still had their own orchestras at their disposal—being able to record under the best conditions available. This recording is a fine example of that common practice. The orchestra sounds well rehearsed, playing accurately and confident. The strings play with a big warm sound and the wind section blends very well.

The recorded sound is dated but very transparent nevertheless. Microphones are a little too close to the singers, but certainly not disturbing.

Any reference recording? This one, without a doubt—although a very convincing alternative with Pavarotti and Freni can be found on Decca. Another recommended recording is the one with Callas, Gobbi, and Di Stefano under Serafin on EMI.

Brilliant is doing a great job releasing indispensable opera repertoire from the 1950s and ’60s. It doesn’t always release the latest digital remastered versions, but they’re always very decent and neat. However, there’s no booklet to be found. To conclude, I can say that this is a disc that belongs on every music-lover’s shelf. Even if you’re not fond of Leoncavallo, buy it for the near-perfect performance and its sheer dramatic intensity. It’s that good.

FANFARE: Bart Verhaeghe


Anyone who knows this Pagliacci--studio recorded in 1953--will acknowledge that it is probably the best sung version available. Fabulous voices abound, all in their prime: Victoria de Los Angeles, with her innate dignity and gorgeous sound; Jussi Björling, golden-voiced, with a slightly lachrymose tinge and real pathos; Leonard Warren, utterly secure, including huge top notes and a nice sneer; and Robert Merrill at his classiest, with the smoothest and most beautiful baritone voice of his generation. Add to these the amazing Robert Shaw Chorale, with plenty to do in this opera, and Renato Cellini leading a fine orchestra with the type of forward propulsion that turns this melodrama into real drama while at the same time reveling in the glory of his singers' voices, and you should have a perfect performance. And while it is still my favorite reading of this opera, it is in fact not perfect.

Just between us, here are the problems: Like her Carmen, Angeles' Nedda sounds too much like a good girl; Björling lacks some vocal heft for this strenuous part, and while his refusal to be vulgar is a musical delight, there is some excitement missing (Corelli and del Monaco sound as if they could easily kill someone; Björling does not); Warren is not the singing actor that, say, Gobbi is.

And also between us: Angeles still manages to be totally committed and fascinating, and when she does bite into an angry phrase it really stings; Björling's portrayal is heartbreaking, perhaps because he does not seem to be a bully from the start; and once you hear Warren sing the Prologue, with its stunning pianissimo middle section and big, ringing ending, you won't care if he yodels his way through the rest of the performance--which he does not. His Prologue is one of the few instances in recorded opera where you listen and think, "yes, this is exactly how it's supposed to sound." I love this set and at Brilliant's price, it must be in every collection. The sound is good-enough mono--a bit sharp-edged with voices very close.

--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

I Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo
Performer:  Robert Merrill (Baritone), Jussi Björling (Tenor), Victoria de los Angeles (Soprano),
George Cehanovsky (Baritone), Richard Wright (Tenor), Leonard Warren (Baritone),
Paul Franke (Tenor)
Conductor:  Renato Cellini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  RCA Victor Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Italy 

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