The Metropolitan Opera opened the 1994/5 season with a starrily cast double bill of Puccini’s Il Tabarro and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Both were conducted by James Levine and filmed by Brian Large.
The Il Tabarro production was by Fabrizio Melano and dated from 1975 who also directed the revival. It’s a single, literal set of a barge and a quay and it’s heavy, blocky and dark as so many sets of that period were. There’s nothing remarkable about the production. It too, is entirely literal. There’s some fine singing from the men; Juan Pons as Michele and Placido Domingo as Luigi. They can both act and Domingo looks very buff and much younger than his years. The problem here is Teresa Stratas as Giorgetta. She was a year away from retirement at this point and she doesn’t sound or look like the young wife that the libretto calls for. She acts the Hell out of it of course but nothing can disguise the fading in the voice and Mr. Large’s relentless close ups on her face are just plain cruel. This is not the disc for people who want a record of what a superb artist Stratas was.
The Pagliacci is also directed by Melano in a Zeffirelli production dating from 1970. It’s very Zeffirelli; busy and fussy and a bit overstuffed but pretty in an old fashioned way. The opening scene has a real horse, acrobats and a fire eater. The action is played out dead straight. There’s no ambiguity about the final scene for instance. The singing from the men is also good. Juan Pons appears this time as Tonio and is very fine, sespecially in the Prologue. Luciano Pavarotti comes in as Vanio and sings the heck out of the big numbers. Vesti la giubba ticks all the boxes with fine Italianate tenoring. Stratas sings Nedda asnd it’s not quite as problematic as her Giorgetta, party at leasy because Large is less close up addicted but I also think her make up is better. She also “acts young” very convincingly. I’m still not sure about the voice here. She seems to be going for a very “provincial” sound deliberately. It’s quite coarse and not especially pleasant. Still, it’s an OK very traditional Pagliacci and Levine gets a great sound out of the orchestra in, for example, the prelude to Act 2.
Technically this is very much of its time. It’s a 4:3 aspect ratio picture with LPCM stereo sound. There are also DTS and Dolby surround tracks but they were synthesized using Deutsche Grammophon’s AMSII technology and don’t have any real spatial impact. St ill, it’s quite watchable and the sound is fine too. Large’s video direction is typically focussed on close ups. I understand why in the Il Tabarro. There’s nothing else to see and the set is dark. I’m not sure there were other choices. He’s a bit more relaxed in the Pagliacci but what he doesn’t show here probably matters more. I think there was quite a lot going on off camera in Canio’s “warning aria” for instance and we only get fleeting glimpses of it.
There aren’t really any extras on the disk but the booklet is quite good with an essay and a cued synopsis. Subtitle options are English, Italian, French, German and Spanish.
I really can’t recommend this disk except as a historical record. There are good modern recordings of both works. The Pagliacci from Salzburg with Kaufmann as Canio is a much more interesting production, at least as good vocally and much better technically. Oddly, it too was filmed by Brian Large. It’s paired with Cavelleria Rusticana. For a good modern Il Tabarro there’s a 2015 Covent Garden recording of the complete Il Trittico in entirely straightforward productions by Richard Jones. My main beef with this Met recording though is that this is not how I want to remember Teresa Stratas.