A double recording of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci made by Columbia Gramophone Co. Ltd in 1927 was re-mastered in 2005 by divine art (HISTORIC SOUND 27803) and most recently released as part of the company’s inexhaustible collection of historic recordings. The album reached my hands just recently thanks to the diligence of the good people at .

The British National Opera Company operated for nearly a decade in England during the 1920’s, being well ahead of its time as an ensemble integrated by British nationals, playing Opera in English, mostly outside of London, and operating for several months every year. The company began in 1922 after acquiring physical and artistic assets from another company founded by Sir Thomas Beecham. It ceased operations in 1929.

Amongst the artists who sang and conducted in the company’s productions several are represented in this recording, beginning with Eugene Goosens, the conductor of this Pagliacci, who among other English maestros went on to achieve international fame during a forty year career.

Among the singers, the tenor Heddle Nash towers above the rest. He is the Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana and, thank goodness, not the Tonio but the Beppe in Pagliacci. Opera buffs will remember him as the very fine Ferrando in the Fritz Busch Glyndebourne recording of Cosi fan tutte.

First and foremost, the singing is good, but by and large neither idiomatic, nor Italianate, no doubt due to the language being sung. Perhaps better translations would have helped. But both the Cavalleria and the Pagliacci translations by Frederick Weatherly make the singers work doubly hard to get past the diphthongs and mixed vowels that make sung English a challenge regardless of how good the good intentions of the librettist, the composer and the translator. In addition to that, Mascagni’s libretto for his Cavalleria Rusticana is based on Giovanni Verga’s earthy, hyper-realistic novella of the same title, and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a quintessentially Italian Verismo work has for its text the words of its composer. Both have raw, earthy and gutsy libretti that here come sounding in Weatherly’s oh-so-English translation like Edwardian operettas.

Nevertheless, Heddle Nash, a leggiero tenor improbably cast in the dramatic part of Turiddu impresses as an impassionate Sicilian cad, excellent in his opening serenade, fiery in his scene with Santuzza, perfectly suited to the lightness of the drinking song, and utterly convincing in his heartfelt farewell to Mamma Lucia, here sung by the excellent Justine Griffiths, a true contralto whom I have never heard before.

The other singers are adequate to their tasks, though light voiced in the case of May Blyth’s Santuzza or simply wooden, as with Harold Williams, the Alfio in Cavalleria Rusticana , who is also the Tonio in Pagliacci.

The members of the cast of Pagliacci fare better, except for the crucially central Canio, here sung in a ham-fisted manner by tenor Frank Mullings, who nearly comes to grief in the commedia scene at the end of the opera. Miriam Licette is a soulful Nedda, Dennis Noble a lyrical and manly Silvio. Harold Williams is the Tonio, sporting a darker tone than most baritones, but lacking the top A flat we have all come to expect as the climax at the end of the Prologue. Heddle Nash is a perfect Beppe.

Eugene Goosens conducts Pagliacci elegantly and is there for his singers 100% of the time. In the Cavalleria Rusticana, Aylmer Buesst takes oddly fast tempi when expansiveness is needed, in fairness perhaps to help his lighter-voiced cast and chorus.

The release of this invaluable historic recording, impeccably remastered by Pristine Audio‘s Andrew Rose should be good news for all opera buffs interested in collecting historical performances.

Rafael de Acha

2 thoughts on “CAV AND PAG IN ENGLISH!

  1. You know, Goossens had the longest tenure (I believe) as conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, from 1931 to 1946. He succeeded Fritz Reiner. KD

    Sent from my iPad



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