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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Puccini from Verona (3 DVD set)
Tosca [124:00]
Eva Marton (soprano) – Tosca
Giacomo Aragall (tenor) – Cavaradossi
Ingvar Wixell (baritone) – Scarpia
Alfredo Giacomotti (baritone) – Angelotti
Conductor: Daniel Oren
rec. live, Arena di Verona, August 1984
Turandot [114:00]
Ghena Dimitrova (soprano) – Turandot
Nicola Martinucci (tenor) – Calaf
Cecilia Gasdia (soprano) – Liu
Gianfranco Manganotti (tenor) – Emperor
Conductor: Maurizio Arena
rec. live, Arena di Verona, August 1983
Madama Butterfly [144:00]
Raina Kabaivanska (soprano) – Cio-Cio-San
Nazzareno Antinori (tenor) – Pinkerton
Eleonora Jankovic (mezzo) – Suzuki
Lorenzo Saccomani (baritone) – Sharpless
Conductor: Maurizio Arena
rec. live, Arena di Verona, July 1983
Region Code: 2, 3, 4, 5; Aspect Ratio 4:3, Dolby Digital and Linear-PCM stereo
NVC ARTS 5051442863727 [3 DVDs: 382:00]


Experience Classicsonline

This fine collection of DVDs shows the opera at Verona at its big, brash best, though you have to be prepared to take the whole Arena experience, both rough and smooth. 

Filming any opera poses its problems, but these problems are magnified (literally) when a director has to compress the vast space of the Arena into a TV screen. On the one hand, each of these productions offers the awesome spectacle of the arena being used to its full potential, and on the other they show the intimate, though not always subtle, emotions of the main characters in close-up. Watching these productions in person means one would lose the intimate emotion of the screen at such a distance, while the confinements of the screen necessarily mean that we often lose the sheer scale of the action. At the end of the first Act of Tosca we zoom out from a transfixed Scarpia to the full congregation who look like ants against the vast scene! So each of these DVDs poses something of a contradiction. Appropriately, each has a lot to enjoy, while also having various irritations. 

Tosca has the most puzzling staging. The church interior of the first act has a collection of vast stone horses which look as though they have escaped from the Trevi Fountain. They serve no purpose other than to fill a gap and give the singers something to move around. Things improve scenically for the cavernous interior of Scarpia’s chamber and the final act atop the Castel Sant’Angelo is dominated by a vast and intimidating angel bearing a sword. Against these backdrops the camera has little choice but to focus in on the more intimate emotions of the characters; thankfully this is where the production succeeds most. The singing is excellent from all the principals. Eva Marton, who has never been caught well on CD, suits live DVDs much better - witness her live Gioconda from Vienna. Her large voice suits the spaces of the Arena perfectly and she whittles down her often unwieldy timbre to match the more intimate moments of the piece beautifully, such as in the hushed love episodes of Acts 1 and 3. Vissi d’arte is genuinely moving, helped by the camera direction which, rightly, focuses on her face throughout. Giacomo Aragall is a marvellously ardent Cavardossi, a true Italian tenor in the old style! Recondita armonia draws warm applause, as do, more annoyingly, his cries of La vita mi costasse in Act 1 and Vittoria! in Act 2. His acting is totally wooden, but you can forgive this for the sound that he makes. The best singing actor of the piece is Ingvar Wixell’s Scarpia, dressed in opulent purples with and flowing robes. His arrival in Act 1 is a genuine climax as he sweeps onto the stage, and his chesty voice suits this villain perfectly. 

Verona’s badly behaved audiences often cause one to suspend disbelief and interrupt the dramatic flow, however. Vissi d’arte is greeted with a storm of applause. Marton then pauses and, rather than taking a fully fledged bow, she merely bends subtly to the left and right, while retaining Tosca’s pained expression on her face. Absurd! Tosca’s death-leap at the end also seems more than usually daft because she is a mere speck on the huge scene which the camera is zooming out against. 

Turandot is perhaps the most successful of these three films, mainly because of the thrilling singing. Ghena Dimitrova’s voice is like a laser-beam of silver cutting through the air. There is not a single forced or inaccurate note in her whole interpretation and she brings the character alive in an enthralling way. For her performance alone this disc is worth having. Opposite her is an equally thrilling Martinucci who hams up the big moments - drawing rather unnecessary applause after his, admittedly exhilarating, cries of Turandot! in Act 1 - yet modifying his character for the more intimate moments of the final duet in Act 3. In fact the scene after Liu’s death is strangely erotic as these two titans lose their marble exteriors and slowly yield themselves to one another. Cecilia Gasdia’s Liu make an excellent foil. She is fresh, innocent and human compared to the severity of the lead parts, and her voice is not only sweet but suggestive of Liu’s essential vulnerability. Ping, Pang and Pong bring well-judged light relief, the close-ups of their face bringing out their comic acting talent. The main visual disappointment, however, is the production’s rather drab appearance. Almost everything on stage, save Calaf’s red jacket, is black, white or grey, and the whole production seems suffused in a bluish twilight. The scenery for this opera is quite staid in comparison with Tosca: the vast arena stage seems mostly empty except for some majestic flights of stairs and, of course, the vast chorus. The climactic moments of the Emperor’s entries work well enough, though here more than anywhere the dilemma of the wide angle versus the close-up is most obvious. 

I wasn’t hoping for much from Madama Butterfly, because this opera is the most intimate and least reliant on spectacle. True, the scene consists merely of the paper house in the garden, plonked amid the flights of arena steps, but this film uses close-up techniques almost throughout and so we lose nothing but gain a great deal of insight. Kabaivanska is too old to be a convincing child and her singing is notably mature, however her acting saves her performance, and is most moving, especially at the start of Act 2 when she steadfastly refuses to consider that Pinkerton has abandoned her. Un bel di here sits naturally in the context of the action and makes perfect dramatic sense: here the storm of applause is deserved. The climax is most moving, as is her reaction when she discovers the truth at the end of Act 3. As Pinkerton Antinori’s acting is as hammy as they come and even his singing is pretty wobbly at the start of Act 1. He rises to a strong Addio, fiorito asil in Act 3, however. We feel no sympathy whatever for his Pinkerton, but that, perhaps, is the point. Saccomani shows authority and vulnerability as Sharpless, while Goro and Suzuki support well. It is a testament to the success of this DVD that, despite my low expectations, I found myself very moved at the end of this most emotional of operas. This is thanks, in no small part, to the admirable direction of Brian Large, who supervises all three of these films and who always places the eye where the ear tells it that it wants to be. He also begins each film with footage of the afternoon crowds queuing to get into the Arena, and the candles being lit as the lights go down. 

So while none of these operas would be a first choice on their own, each is a good representation of the classic Stand-and-Sing style of Verona. Each works well on its own terms, and if you like your opera big, bold and traditional, then you’ll probably like this.

Simon Thompson


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