Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci is a vehicle for the tenor, yet every baritone wants to sing the relatively minor role of Tonio. The reason is simple – the prologue. It’s a sensational aria for a Verdi style baritone that ends in a high A-flat followed by a high G. It’s sung in front of the curtains with the singer clothed in his clown suit – the more outrageous the better. It’s also the reason for productions of the opera to have its famous last line – La commedia è finita (The comedy is ended) – given back to the baritone as was originally intended before Enrico Caruso appropriated it. Tonio starts the piece with commentary about what’s to follow and should conclude it. It makes no dramatic sense for Canio, the tenor, to recite the line. Below are 16 versions of the prologue sung by some of the most distinguished baritones of the past century. The words, Italian and English, are at the end of this article.
Mattia Battistini (1856-1928) was known as the King of the Baritones because of the beauty of his voice, the excellence of his technique, and evenness of his vocal production over its entire range. Unfortunately, Battistini never sang in North America. A trip to South America in his youth so unnerved him that he refused to ever again take an ocean voyage. He sang with undiminished effect almost until his death so secure was his technique.I don’t know why he chose to speak the two lines just before the aria’s conclusion. They are meant to sung and speaking them, in my mind detracts from the conclusion of the piece. Battistini would typically sing the prologue in evening dress and then sing the role of Silvio, the opera’s other baritone role which once the prologue is out of the way is a bigger part. This drove Leoncavallo mad and he tried very hard to stop Battistini from mutilating his score, but usually without success. Battistini Il Prologo
Mario Ancona (1860-1931) was a baritone in the same style as Battistini. He created the role of Silvio at the world premiere of Pagliacci in 1892 and was the first Tonio at both Covent Garden and the Met. His recording of the Prologue is the strangest I’ve. heard. He ends the piece at the 4th line from the end and also omits the high note singing an F instead of an A-flat. His singing up to that point is exemplary and the sound is amazing for 1907. But the ending is so different from usual that the listener is left hanging. Ancona Il Prologo
Riccardo Stracciari (1875-1955) had a long and distinguished during a period that was suffused with outstanding Italian baritones. His career at the Met only went from from 1906 to 1908 during which time he made 96 appearances with the company. This recording was made in 1915. Stracciari Il Prologo
Titta Ruffo (1877-1953) was such a big star that the Met could not afford to have him and Caruso on the payroll at the same time. He did not appear with the company until the great tenor was dead and after the baritone’s glory years were over. Ruffo was a vocal miracle who by his own admission never really knew how to sing. This was the reason he gave for refusing to teach after his performing career had ended. Ruffo Il Prologo
Richard Bonelli (1889-1980), born George Richard Bunn, was an American baritone who appeared in 164 performances at the Met including 16 times as Tonio in Pagliacci. He had a fine voice and is often omitted from the list of great American baritones, an omission that is not deserved. This recording was made during a broadcast of the opera from the Met in 1936. Bonelli Il Prologo
Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960) was an American baritone who was famous during the 20s and 30s well beyond the confines of opera. He made movies, appeared on Broadway, and was frequently on the radio. The following excerpt is from the 1935 film Metropolitan. Before alcohol and hard living took its toll, he had a dark and powerful voice that combined with a magnetic stage presence made him a star. Tibbett Il Prologo
Pavel Lisitsian (1911-2004) was a Soviet baritone of Armenian descent who was the great baritone soloist at the Bolshoi between 1940 to 1966. He made only one appearance at the Met – Amonasro in Aida. He sang in Russian while everyone else used Italian. He had a large and powerful voice that would have made him an international star absent the Cold War. He sings the prologue in Russian. Lisitsian Il Prologo
Also born in 1911 was the great American baritone Leonard Warren (1911-60). Warren was the greatest baritone I ever heard – by a large margin. His recordings don’t convey the size and impact his voice had in the old Met. I heard his Tonio several times; it was a life altering experience. This recording is from a 1944 broadcast. This was relatively early in Warren’s career. As good as the high notes are here, they were even better a few years later. Warren Il Prologo
Tito Gobbi (1913-1984) was as famous for his acting as for his singing. The was a dramatic edge to his sound which added his portrayal of dark characters, most notably Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca. He made about 25 films in addition to appearing in all the world’s major opera houses. This recording is taken from the 1946 movie version of the opera. Gobbi Il Prologo
Robert Merrill (1917-2004) was clearly one of the greatest baritones of the 20th century, but he had to take second place to Leonard Warren for the first 15 years of his career at the Met. His sound was unique and can be recognized after just a few notes. Over a 30 year career at the Met he sang 789 performances. If his voice had a flaw it was his struggle with high notes though you can’t tell that from this 1955 recording. Merrill Il Prologo
Aldo Protti (1920-95) was a fine baritone who though he sang at most of the world’s great houses (he didn’t get to the Met until he was 65 years old) was characterized as reliable and was often taken for granted. But as you can hear from this recording made in performance in Japan in 1961 he was much more than reliable. Protti Il Prologo
Cornell MacNeil (1922-2011) was another exceptional American baritone. Known for his volcanic high notes, he paid a price for these eruptions. The 1968 performance made at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires shows the early signs of the wobble that was to dominate his later years. Nevertheless, he gave 642 shows at the Met. Macneil Il Prologo 1968
Ettore Bastianini (1922-67) had a dark voice well suited for the great Verdi roles. His middle range was as good as it gets. He, like Merrill, sometimes struggled with his high notes. Over the last few years of his short life he underwent a sharp vocal decline. No one could understand why until it was revealed that he had throat cancer which took his life in 1967. Bastianini Il Prologo
Piero Cappuccilli (1926-2005) was a world renowned baritone who sang everywhere, but gave only one performance at the Met in 1960. I don’t know why he never returned there. He clearly was a major artist. I heard him in Chicago where he regularly appeared. This recording was made in 1962. Cappuccilli Il Prologo
Sherrill Milnes (b 1935) appeared 653 times at the Met over more than a 30 span. For the first 20 years of his career he was one of the world’s greatest Verdi baritones. The last part of his career was marred by difficulty keeping on pitch. This recording was made in 1978 at a Met performance. It’s one of the best in this compilation. Milnes Il Prologo
The only singer presented here who is still active is Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b 1962). Hvorostovsky’s voice is best suited for Verdi’s operas which the baritone has recently been singing almost exclusively. His sound is Italianate and his high notes have ping. His voice though not very big is very well produced and controlled. Hvorostovsky Il Prologo
Si può?… Si può?…
Signore! Signori!… Scusatemi
se da sol me presento.
Io sono il Prologo:
Poiché in iscena ancor
le antiche maschere mette l’autore,
in parte ei vuol riprendere
le vecchie usanze, e a voi
di nuovo inviami.
Ma non per dirvi come pria:
Le lacrime che noi versiam son false!
Degli spasimi e de’ nostri martir
non allarmatevi» No! No:
L’autore ha cercato
uno squarcio di vita.
Egli ha per massima sol
che l’artista è un uom
e che per gli uomini
scrivere ei deve.
Ed al vero ispiravasi.
Un nido di memorie
in fondo a l’anima
cantava un giorno,
ed ei con vere lacrime scrisse,
e i singhiozzi
il tempo gli battevano!
Dunque, vedrete amar
sì come s’amano gli esseri umani;
vedrete de l’odio i tristi frutti.
Del dolor gli spasimi,
urli di rabbia, udrete,
e risa ciniche!
E voi, piuttosto
che le nostre povere gabbane d’istrioni,
le nostr’anime considerate,
poiché siam uomini
di carne e d’ossa,
e che di quest’orfano mondo
al pari di voi spiriamo l’aere!
Il concetto vi dissi…
Or ascoltate com’egli è svolto.
May I? May I?
Excuse me if I alone introduce myself
I am the Prologue:
Since yet in the scene
The author uses ancient masks;
In part he wants to bring back the old customs,
And send me back to you.
But not to tell you as before:
“The tears we cry are false!
Of spasms and our martyrs
Do not be alarmed!”
No! No. The author has sought instead
To depict a glimpse of life.
He believes utmost that the artist is a man
And that he must write for men,
And be inspired by the truth.
A nest of memories
Was singing at the bottom of his soul one day,
And he wrote with genuine tears,
And his sobs beat the tempo!
And so, you will see love
As human beings love each other;
You will see the sad fruits of hate.
The spasms of pain,
Shouts of rage, you will hear,
And also laughter!
And you, rather than
Our poor actors’ changes,
Consider our soul,
Since we are men of flesh and bone,
And from this orphan world
We breathe the same air as you!
I’ve told you the concept…
Now listen as it is carried out.
Let’s go. Begin!