Notes and Editorial Reviews
16 versions of the Prologue
Titta Ruffo, Pasquale Amato, Domenico Viglione Borghese, Riccardo Stracciari, Lawrence Tibbett, Carlo Galeffi, Mario Basiola, Giuseppe Valdengo, Gino Bechi, Leonard Warren, Paolo Silveri, Tito Gobbi, Robert Merrill, Carlo Tagliabue, Aldo Protti (bar); Mario del Monaco (ten); various accompaniments
BONGIOVANNI 1214-2, mono (79:25)
This may appear to be an odd idea whose implementation you’ve never seen before, but it has a
venerable lineage. Back in the LP days, E. J. Smith issued a recording of
40 Tenors Sing “Di Quella Pira”
on his TAP label. Considerably more effort has been spent on finding performances here of some distinction, and in sound that is reasonably good, if hardly high fidelity. Bongiovanni is a relatively small Italian company that places emphasis on its own nationals, so it’s no surprise we get 13 Italians and, possibly in a marketing gesture, three Americans. A pity about those limitations, as there have been some excellent non-Italian versions recorded by Pavel Lisitsian, Hans Hotter, Manuel Ausensi, Joseph Schwarz, Muslim Magomaev, Marcel Cordes, Stoyan Popov, Yuri Mazurok, Joel Berglund, Nicolae Herlea, John Hargreaves, and Renato Zanelli (before he switched to tenor, and became one of the finest Otellos of all time), among others immediately coming to mind. If tenor Mario del Monaco is deemed worthy of inclusion in this baritone piece, why not Richard Tauber, whose voice was every bit as good, whose interpretations went deeper, and whose sense of style was far better?
But this is nitpicking. We have an opportunity on this disc to examine how many different celebrated performers approached this monologue over the years. There are no surprises among the names, but some good and occasionally great listening provided. Let’s briefly highlight a few of the best.
Top marks go to Titta Ruffo. His 1912 HMV version has all the dark intensity and magnificent strength one could desire, with the high A? at the conclusion of “al pari di voi” breaking forth triumphantly like the dawn. But what surprises are the sensitive moments: the softening of the second “Si può,” the carefully parsed speech song beginning at “Le lacrime che noi,” the breadth and softness of “Un nido di memorie.”
Leonard Warren’s 1946 Victor is comparatively restrained in its theatrics, but the distinctive beauty of his upper range, his refined line, and his exceptional soft singing are much to be prized—especially during a period when unvarying loudness and never-ending dramatics were reducing much of Italian opera to a single performance plane. Mario del Monaco’s live 1956 concert performance exemplifies this tendency, though it’s difficult to resist what he does with such legato phrasing and that huge, secure voice under full sail.
Tito Gobbi, in an excerpt from the opera’s 1948 film version, is in exemplary form. Even at that time in his mid-30s one would never call what he had a beautiful voice, but the quick, perfectly even vibrato lends it an almost French sheen. Then, too, there are the trademark touches of distinction one would expect from this great artist, such as the way each syllable in “se da sol me presento” is separated slightly in imitation of spoken emphasis, with attention to equality and intonation; and the softening of the line (“e a voi di nuovo inviami”) when Canio comes to describing his own function in matters.
Giuseppe Valdengo, too, deserves praise for the imaginative detail he finds in this music. Too often dismissed as “very good, but only under the influence of Toscanini,” his version of the Prologue with piano accompaniment, broadcast over radio in 1937, is a real find. The phrasing has a direct naturalness to it that achieves its objectives with no over-the-top histrionics. Especially fine is the section beginning “L’autore ha cercato” and continuing through “il tempo gli battevano!” With the exception of Gobbi, no other version here so carefully catches each distinct mood and its undercurrent, nor do any others bring to mind how Leoncavallo wisely based the Prologue on the
of Iago in Verdi’s
. Far from being a vehicle for Toscanini’s imagination, Valdengo emerges here (and elsewhere) as a fine creative artist whose qualities would naturally attract a great conductor’s attention.
The engineering employs a variety of techniques, to mixed effect. There’s tight filtering at the top of the treble as well as deep in the bass, with no evidence of ticks, scratches, or thumps. Equalization is for the most part good, though I find Paolo Silveri’s version uncomfortably bright. The acoustic material gives the impression of being played back through a horn, and rerecorded with extra room ambiance; true or not, these selections have a slightly hollow sound that is distracting. Some post-echo is evident in several of the electrically recorded selections, while del Monaco’s version suffers from mild tape flutter and pitch instability.
The liner notes by Davide Annachini are detailed, but some observations leave me wondering if we heard the same singers. For example, Domenico Viglione Borghese is referred to as possessing “exceptionally clean diction” that “comes through even if his vowels are a little too open,” but this is a singer who frequently sacrifices consonants for ease of production, with a particularly annoying habit (which extends to other recordings) of replacing the “r” sound with either “w” or something between the two.
That said, and all other concerns duly noted, I’m glad to have this recording. There are some fine interpretations on it, and enough variation to keep things interesting. Consider it as a gift to an opera lover, whether another or yourself.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
I Pagliacci: Sì può? [Prologue] by Ruggero Leoncavallo
Domenico Viglione-Borghese (Bass Baritone),
Carlo Galeffi (Baritone),
Robert Merrill (Baritone),
Pasquale Amato (Baritone),
Lawrence Tibbett (Baritone),
Giuseppe Valdengo (Baritone),
Mario Basiola (Baritone),
Gino Bechi (Baritone),
Leonard Warren (Baritone),
Mario Del Monaco (Tenor),
Paolo Silveri (Baritone),
Carlo Tagliabue (Baritone),
Titta Ruffo (Baritone),
Aldo Protti (Baritone),
Riccardo Stracciari (Baritone),
Tito Gobbi (Baritone)
Written: 1892; Italy
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