Recorded 12-17 June 1954, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett
Nedda was the first of four roles Callas recorded in the studio, but never sang on stage, the others being Mimi, Manon and Carmen. Pagliacci is really the tenor’s opera, and one can imagine the role would have held little interest for her on stage, though, as is her wont, she makes a great impression in a role one wouldn’t readily associate with her.
Back in the 50s, Nedda was usually played by a light-voiced soubrette, who, if she provided any characterisation at all, would play her as a two-dimensional heartless little minx, so how like Callas that she should look inside the music and find more facets to Nedda’s personality.
Her very first words Confusa io son strike a note of fear, justified when she sings of Canio’s temper (brutale com egli’e) and note the accent she gives to the word brutale. She shrugs off her fear, but in her singing of the ensuing aria, with its paean to freedom, it is not difficult to understand that here is a young woman bursting with life but trapped in a loveless marriage with a man prone to violence.
The scene with Tonio, like all Callas’s collaborations with Gobbi, bristles with drama and life. Here it would seem is another man trying to subjugate her to his will, but her relationship with Tonio is different. Here she has the upper hand. At first mockingly dismissive, she taunts him until he responds with violence; but here too she retains the upper hand, lashing out both vocally (Miserabile!) and physically with the whip. Left alone she expresses her distaste with a voice dripping with loathing, only to change in an instant when she lovingly sings the single word Silvio as her lover makes his appearance.
The duet with Silvio is erotically charged, suffused with warmth and passion, then in the ensuing confrontation with Canio, defiant in the face of fear, her voice hardens again. Is there a suggestion here that this is ground they have been over before?
Also masterful is the way she uses a different, whiter sound for Colombina, and only in the final stages of the opera in her ultimate refusal to submit to Canio does she return to full voice, riding the orchestra with a defiance that goads Canio into his final act of murder. There are parallels here with Callas’s Carmen.
Di Stefano does well as Canio, though I can’t help feeling that such a Nedda really needed a more psychologically complex foil, along the lines of someone like Vickers, or Domingo in his later portrayals, not that either of them were around at the time of the recording of course. Nonetheless, though some might think him a shade light-voiced for the role, Di Stefano is a very effective Canio, singing brilliantly off the words, his diction, as usual, exemplary.
Gobbi, on the other hand is superb as Tonio, as is Panerai as an ardent Silvio, and Monti, much more than a comprimario, makes an excellent Beppe. Serafin is a relatively unassuming presence. He doesn’t do anything wrong, but nowhere is his conducting as revelatory as it often was in Verdi.
Pagliacci probably wouldn’t rank high on any list of essential Callas recordings (certainly not on mine) and I’d have to be honest and admit it’s not one of my favourite operas. Neither the character nor the music really call on Callas’s greater musical gifts, yet, without stage experience, she creates a rounded character, and, with a superior cast, this recording has held its own for over 50 years now.