Back in the early 1950s, as part of their "speed war" with Columbia records, RCA issued a number of complete opera sets on 45-rpm discs. The procedure was clumsy and inefficient; by 1954 the company abandoned the practice and capitulated to issuing complete operas on LP only. (The only exception to this rule was the 1952 recording of "Tristan und Isolde" conducted by Furtwangler, which was issued only on LPs.) Columbia, who featured such singers as Eleanor Steber, Dorothy Kirsten, Richard Tucker and Eugene Conley, did not sell as well as RCA despite their lead in issuing operas on LP only, and not on 45.
The reason for RCA's superiority was Jussi Bjorling, the great Swedish lyric tenor. In person, his was a beautiful but smallish presence, elegant in its phrasing and phenomenal breath control if a little lacking in passion. But on records, Bjorling sounded phenomenal; and, when he acted with the voice as well as singing (which was rare), he made a tremendous impact.
This recording is one of four in which Bjorling gave his very best; the other three were "Il Trovatore," "Aida" and the 1957 stereo remake of "Cavalleria Rusticana." As with Rhadames in "Aida," this was a role he did not often sing on stage, which may explain his involvement: the more Bjorling sang a role, the less interesting he often was (though, of course, he always sang beautifully). His soprano partner here was Victoria de los Angeles, who likewise sounded more involved than usual; the Tonio was the great Leonard Warren, one of the finest singing-actors of his time; and the conductor was Renato Cellini, a vastly underrated house conductor who was actually much better than the regular Met house conductor, Fausto Cleva.
The result is a "Pagliacci" which is suavely, even elegantly, sung, yet losing only a little in full-blooded passion. The only real disappointments are Robert Merrill's rather tepid and uninteresting Silvio, and the overly-polite, church-choir sound of the Robert Shaw Chorale. Otherwise, this is a "Pagliacci" that satisfies. Leonard Warren's burly, brassy yet scrupulously musical voice sounds wonderful as Tonio; Bjorling is brilliant and appropriately angry and dolorous as Canio; de los Angeles is a kittenish Nedda; and Renata Cellini conducts a taut yet warm and expansive performance. The only disappointments are Robert Merrill's rather tepid Silvio and the overly polite, churchy singing of the Robert Shaw Chorale. Well worth the modest price...no other "Pagliacci" recording is as satisfying as this one!