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Leoncavallo, Ruggero: I Pagliacci (CD) Decca 2000

Leoncavallo: Pagliacci (CD)


A recording of “legendary status” – The Classical Good CD Guide
“Simon Keenlyside… … fits Silvio like a glove” Gramophone
“Simon Keenlyside is suavely seductive as Silvio and his scene with Frittoli is the highlight of this recording.” BBC Music Magazine

Composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo
Conductor Riccardo Chailly
Canio: José Cura
Nedda: Barbara Frittoli
Tonio: Carlos Alvarez
Silvio: Simon Keenlyside
Beppe: Charles Castronovo
A peasant: Adrian Folea
Another peasant: Gert-Jan Alders
Het National Childrens Choir
Netherlands Radio Choir
Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra
Label Decca
Code 4670862
Recorded 3, 4, 6 September 1999, Grotezaal, Amsterdam Concertgebouw
Released October 10, 2000
Number of discs 1



What the critics say

Review by Pierre Philip Anson, Vol. 6 No. 8 of La Scena Musicale

There are already many superb recordings of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci available. This new recording, made at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, in Sept. 1999, is one of the best in decades, but overall belongs to the second rank of Pagliacci CD recordings.

Argentine tenor José Cura (Canio) is the bankable star of this opera, its commercial and artistic raison d’être. In the history of opera, there have been singers and actors and, more rarely, singing actors. Pure singers like Tucker, Bjoerling, and many sopranos, were useless actors. Recordings convey the better part of their gifts. Cura must be counted among the singing actors like Jon Vickers and Bryn Terfel, who have to be seen live to be fully appreciated. On recordings, Cura loses much of this charisma. His basic sound is large and sweet, though the louder and higher he sings, the more elemental and hormonal he sounds. In scenes of rage and joy, Cura can bellow. His Canio is a mixed bag, a blend of Italianate lyricism and Germanic bullishness, of intense engagement and phoned-in routine. His “Un tal gioco” is not as threatening as it was when Vickers sang it, and not as lovely as when certain great Italian tenors of the sixties sang it. His “Vesti la giubba” is perfunctory and unaffecting. Cura doesn’t have easy high Cs, but on this recording he rockets up to such a high ringing “A ventitre ore” that one suspects electronic enhancement.

Barbara Frittoli’s Nedda is not bad but not exceptional. Frittoli made a few good recordings in the nineties but her voice has coarsened recently. Her basic singing lacks charm and grace. She has a dramatic, pushy spinto sound that is ill-assorted to roles requiring girlish charm. Some of her middle voice is weakly supported and her high notes are acid. Her “Tutto scordiam” is ashy sounding. Her “Stridono lassù” lacks joy. Spanish baritone Carlos Alvarez (Tonio) has good musical instincts, dramatic pacing, and confident delivery. He incarnates the ugly clown with ardent conviction. The voice is rich, masculine, and moving, but sounds older than his 35 years, which keeps him from the very top class of Tonios. The Concertgebouw plays very well indeed, setting the mood with Wagnerian rumblings and Berliozian storm scenes (I.IV). Nedda’s duet with Silvio (Brit baritone Simon Keenlyside) (I.III) floats on a cushion of deliciously romantic orchestral sound. The Netherlands Radio Choir and the national children’s choir sound authentic. Notes and libretto in English, French and German; libretto also in Italian. No artist biographies.

Stephen Francis Vasta for Opera News, 2001

Yet another Pagliacci built around a star tenor — or, in this case, a rising star. Granted, José Cura’s lyric voice lacks the sheer amplitude that Canio requires — in the opening scene, the lowest phrases don’t really project, while the climactic “a ventitre ore” betrays strain — and he occasionally resorts to gimmicks, darkening vowels and pushing an open, nasal tone in an attempt to simulate the correct presence. On the other hand, his basic timbre (bright and ringy at the top, startlingly baritonal below middle C) suits the role well. Cura’s tone is attractive and liquid in congenial tessitura; he sings the big aria and “No, Pagliaccio non son” freely, keeping the traditional performance mannerisms within the bounds of taste. This is a satisfactory if hardly ideal Canio, surpassing the similarly tenorcentric vehicles of Pavarotti (Decca/London 414590) and Carreras (EMI CDMB 63650).

The fuss over Cura shouldn’t obscure the really first-class performance here: Barbara Frittoli’s Nedda. As recorded, she has a distinctive, round, fruity timbre in the middle voice, soaring to a bright, juicy, spinning top. Her solid technique produces a firmly bound legato and allows for plenty of dynamic give-and-take. She sings the ballatella in long, arching phrases (though she doesn’t quite match them in the Silvio duet), and she is alert and responsive in the commedia.

As Tonio, Carlos Álvarez’s compact, Italianate voice makes an imposing initial impression, but it gets throaty and constricted as the Prologue’s tessitura rises, instead of opening out. He colors the text minimally there — the music does it for him anyhow — but later his declaration of love is heartfelt. Simon Keenlyside is a solid Silvio, but the love duet wants a rounder, more sweeping instrument than his lean, pointed baritone. He takes the second “Tutto scordiam” to the top A — impressive but inevitably distracting. Charles Castronovo sounds pretty as Beppe.

Riccardo Chailly paces the opera well and elicits full-toned playing in the interludes, though he begins the final strain of the ballatella heavily. The start of the commedia is trim and graceful, and the cello counterpoints sing ardently. But elsewhere, Chailly seems unable to maintain tight ensemble among the Concertgebouw Orchestra — a first-class group that doesn’t play opera regularly. In driving, energetic music the strings sound massive but diffuse, imprecise in attack, and there are numerous smudged landings.

This is a surprisingly subfusc production from Decca, whose engineers have better tamed the Concertgebouw’s resonance elsewhere. The low string excursions are clean and focused, but otherwise excessive ambience blurs definition and produces gummy textures. Perspectives are inconsistent and unclear — it’s hard to tell when the cloudy, frayed chorus actually arrives “onstage” — and the full-ensemble tuttis are rowdy and indistinct. The numerous splices are ill-concealed.

Clive Portbury for BBC Music Magazine

Performance: 4 stars

Sound: 5 stars

The Argentinian star tenor José Cura excels in high-testosterone tenor roles and there is certainly a raw physical excitement in the way he launches himself fearlessly into the role of Canio. The top of the voice sounds almost obscenely healthy. However, he goes at full tilt so much of the time that the result is a little wearing. By comparison, Carlo Bergonzi on the Karajan set, with less heft than Cura, saves what he has for the big moments and brings more finesse and insight to the rest of the part. Compare Cura’s high-voltage ‘Vesti la giubba’ with Bergonzi who starts the aria much quieter, as marked, and then has somewhere to go with it. Also Bergonzi’s much more open diction helps register subtle nuances of characterisation so that when he pulls back for ‘Tu sei Pagliaccio!’ you see the glint in his eye and you know this man is going to kill someone by the end of the evening. Where this set scores over the Karajan is in the wonderfully dark and sultry Nedda of Barbara Frittoli, who has far more Italianate colour in the voice than Joan Carlyle. The Tonio of Carlos Álvarez is no match for Karajan’s Giuseppe Taddei but Simon Keenlyside is suavely seductive as Silvio and his scene with Frittoli is the highlight of this recording. Chailly brings out the many subtleties of colour and orchestration in the score without ever letting it sag. However, when the chips are down, I’d still go for the Karajan, especially at mid-price.

Gramophone, March 2008

Modern Master


Why did Decca’s 2000 Riccardo Chailly recording disappear from catalogues (it has been intermittently available since) with indecent haste (I hope it wasn’t to clear the way for Andrea Bocelli’s indifferent run-through under Steven Mercurio)? It’s the outstanding modern version, where Jose Cura’s baritonal Canio delivers a real performance off the words, capping it with the most viscerally exciting versions of his two set-pieces since Martinelli. Chailly has his Amsterdammers playing (and breathing) like Italian natives; the brass work rivals what Karajan got in Vienna in his Italian Decca days. Barbara Frittoli (Nedda) is age perfect in sound and acting. Carlos Alvarez, after a rather unspecific Prologue, brings demonic energy to Tonio, while Simon Keenlyside, as Latin as those around him, fits Silvio like a glove…

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