mascagni leoncavallo pristine

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)
Cavalleria rusticana (1890)
Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919)
I Pagliacci (1892)
Jussi Björling, tenor (Turiddu, Canio*)
Zinka Milanov, soprano (Santuzza)
Victoria de los Ángeles, soprano (Nedda*)
Robert Merrill, baritone (Alfio, Silvio*)
Leonard Warren, baritone (Tonio*)
RCA Victor Orchestra/Renato Cellini
rec. 1953, New York City
XR remastering by Andrew Rose, 2024
Pristine Audio PACO209 [2 CDs: 140]

A photo of Jussi Björling graces the cover of this Pristine issue, and he is without doubt the main reason to hear these recordings. It is always a pleasure to hear his beautiful voice, musical phrasing and ringing top notes, though I’m not sure he would ever have been perfectly cast in either role. But before coming to Björling himself, it might be instructive to consider other elements of the recordings.

Both operas were recorded in 1953 in New York with the RCA Victor Orchestra and the Robert Shaw Chorale under Renato Cellini and sound remarkably good in these Pristine transfers, so good, I almost thought they were in stereo. I hadn’t heard either performance before, so I have nothing to compare the Pristine transfers to, but they are admirably clear and spacious and a good deal better than the contemporaneous Serafin recordings with Di Stefano and Callas. The Serafin Pagliacci is in reasonable mono sound, but unfortunately the Cavalleria Rusticana suffers from overload and distortion, which no amount of re-mastering would seem to be able to overcome. Still, I wish that these Cellini performances were half as exciting.

Cellini’s conducting is at least idiomatic, his tempi well chosen, but neither opera really catches fire and they both remain somewhat studio bound. The professional Robert Shaw Chorale sing in both operas. They are faultless in execution, but I couldn’t help picturing them all in prim white shirts and blouses, standing, score in hand, in choir banks. They don’t for one second conjure up the sound of lusty Sicilian peasants or excited Italian village folk. The La Scala Chorus on the Serafin set, may not be so polished, but they have this music in their blood and are much more convincing.

I suppose I should preface my discussion of the solo singers with a confession that I have never much liked Zinka Milanov, or at least not on any of the recordings I have heard, which were all made quite late in her career. From the outset she sounds far too mature, almost indistinguishable from Mamma Lucia in her initial exchanges and completely uninvolved in poor Santuzza’s plight. Björling, who could sometimes be accused of being a little cool, is at his most impassioned in their duet, but she remains phlegmatic and stolid. She is no better in the duet with Robert Merrill’s Alfio, who, in any case, is a bit too jovial and avuncular. Björling’s Turiddu is beautifully sung and, as I mentioned, he does try to inject some passion into his exchanges with Santuzza, but there is something about the inherent nobility in his tone that makes him not quite right for the caddish Turiddu. As always, his singing gives great pleasure, but I can’t quite believe in him.

That said, I find his Turiddu more convincing than his Canio. Yet again, the role is beautifully sung, Vesti la giubba heart-breaking and deeply felt, but can anyone really believe that this is a man who would be driven to double murder? I certainly can’t. I have much the same problem with the Nedda of Victoria De Los Angeles. She is in her best voice, warm and feminine and, like Björling, has the virtue of always being supremely musical. She sings quite beautifully, especially in her Ballatella, but, as with her Carmen, she sounds altogether too ladylike. I don’t necessarily want Nedda to be portrayed as a heartless minx, as was often the case in days gone by, but I need to believe that she has the mettle to defy a bully of a husband and have an affair behind his back.

Nor is there any menace in the Tonio of Leonard Warren, who, in the prologue, could be singing about anything at all really. Gobbi, on the Serafin set, does not have such a beautiful voice, nor such easy top notes, but he makes every word tell. Merrill has here been given the secondary role of Silvio, but his Silvio doesn’t sound much different from his Alfio. Compare Panerai, who sings both roles on the Serafin recordings, utterly menacing as Alfio and ardently seductive as Silvio.

Jussi Björling was, without doubt, one of the greatest tenors of the last century and I always take pleasure in the sheer beauty of his voice, his musical phrasing and his wonderfully free and ringing top notes, so it was a pleasure to hear him here, even if these two roles are not ones to which I think he was really suited. For the rest I derived the most pleasure from De Los Angeles’s beautiful and musical singing as Nedda, even if she too is caught in a role that was not particularly suited to her gifts.

Not a top choice for either of these two operas then. For all that they are in better sound than Serafin’s recordings of the two operas, I would still place the Serafin performances (review) ahead of them. Di Stefano can be a bit wayward, but he is better at expressing the caddish side to Turiddu and the unhinged side of Canio that turns him into a killer. Callas is, as usual, hors concours, both as a wonderfully impassioned Santuzza and a free-spirited and mettlesome Nedda, and she is in fine voice on both recordings. Gobbi is equally brilliant as Tonio and their confrontation bristles with drama. There are also better choices amongst more recent recordings, such as Karajan’s sumptuously recorded La Scala set for DG, which no doubt remains a first choice for many (review).

As always, Pristine should be commended for including with the CDs a package of downloadable items, which includes a copy of the same recording as an MP3 download, together with full scores, both piano and orchestral, and a full libretto in PDF format. Most major companies these days don’t even include an online link to a libretto.

Philip Tsaras

Previous review: Jim Westhead (April 2024)

Availability: Pristine Classical