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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
Arias
Madama Butterfly
1. Un bel di, vedremo [5:00]
2. Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia [14:03]
3. Tu! Tu! piccilo iddio [4:26]
La bohème
4. Si, mi chiamano Mimi [5:19]
5. Donde lieta usci [3:18]
Tosca
6. Vissi d’arte [3:13]
Manon Lescaut
7. In quelle trine morbide [2:39]
8. Tu, tu amore? Tu? [9:11]
9. Sola, perduta, abbandonata [5:08]
Suor Angelica
10. Senza mamma, o bimbo [4:26]
Turandot
11. Signore, ascolta [2:31]
12. Tu che di gel sei cinta [2:49]
13. Nessun dorma [2:55]
Karine Babajanyan (soprano) (1-12)
Giuseppe Giacomini (tenor) (2, 3, 8, 13)
Budapest Symphony Orchestra/Pier Giorgio Morandi
rec. Hungarian Radio Studio 22, Budapest, September 2007
EMI CLASSICS 2677312 [66:31]
Experience Classicsonline

It is always fascinating to encounter new singers and the Armenian-born soprano Karine Babajanyan seems on this hearing to be set for a great career. She started taking piano lessons at the age of seven and then studied singing and choir direction at the Erivan City Conservatory. She took part in master-classes in Italy and after that joined the Armenian National Opera. In 1999 she moved to Germany where she soon became a member of the Stuttgart State Opera. She has also appeared at the Bregenz Festival (as Tosca) and has guested in several opera houses including in Mexico. For her debut disc she has chosen an all-Puccini programme but her stage appearances have been more wide-ranging including the Contessa in Le nozze di Figaro, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte and Leonora in Il trovatore.
 
The first bars of Butterfly’s Un bel di, vedremo reveal a classy voice, handled with taste and innate musicality. She varies the vocal colours skilfully and works with pastel nuances rather than broad brush-strokes of oil. At climactic moments her tone is bright, strong and steady. This aria is an impressive calling-card, memorable more for warmth and humanity than for brilliance. In the extended duet that concludes act I of the same opera, her Pinkerton is veteran Giuseppe Giacomini, who for four decades has been one of the foremost dramatic Italian tenors, sadly overlooked by the major record companies. He was a superb Alvaro in La forza del destino in Verona twenty years ago and it was well into 2000 that I saw him as Otello, a role where he had few superiors. He was beginning to show some signs of ageing then and this is also noticeable here, but considering that he was 67 at the time of recording this is hardly surprising. He has preserved the voice remarkably well, though the singing is inevitably more effortful and under pressure the vibrato tends to loosen. It is still a considerable achievement and I suppose he was inspired by singing the role that was his professional debut in Verelli 1966. As for Ms Babajanyan hers is a Butterfly that should conquer the world’s stages. It is not only a fine voice; there is a soul behind it. She also dares to hold back and sing softly and save her power for the climaxes.
 
Butterfly’s death scene may uncover some limitations in her armoury. This is the most testing portion of the opera – especially in the opera house when she has already been singing so much. It is a fine reading but it seems that in so young and fresh a voice the vibrato should be less prominent. It no doubt enhances the sense of a woman for whom no mental barriers exist any more – and Callas expresses her despair with even more distorted sounds. And I repeat: it is a fine reading and it only confirms the good impression established by the previous items.
 
OK, Butterfly is a voice-killer. Mirella Freni recorded it twice with splendid results, but she fought shy of singing it in the theatre, and the wonderful but underrated Mafalda Favero (1903–1981) declared that the role foreshortened her career by five years.
 
Mimi is no voice-killer and at the great melodic outpouring at the climax of Si, mi chiamano Mimi Ms Babajanyan is second to none – and has that little hint of a Tebaldi-to-be that adds bite to the reading and rinses away any tendency to sentimentality. Donde lieta usci is again rather restrained and the pastel metaphor is applicable here too, but the climactic phrases have all the requisite power.
 
Vissi d’arte is definitely not representative of Tosca as a whole. This inward prayer is in the opera a moment of repose in the midst of the blood-curling situation – similar to the function of the intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana. There is some widening of vibrato also here in the powerful phrases in the middle of the aria, but this goes well with the character, and at the ultimate climax there can be no reservations. Since Tosca is one of Karine Babajanyan’s active stage roles it would have been nice to hear her in the first act duet as well, when one of the great Cavaradossis of the last thirty-five years was at hand.
 
Instead he demonstrated with aplomb his capacity in the emotionally charged duet from the second act of Manon Lescaut, where the soprano reveals impressive mezzo-soprano quality down low. Giacomini is wonderfully responsive and if one can think away the slight wobble at fortissimo it is a rendering to challenge many a tenor’s half his age. And he sings a fine pianissimo in the final bar of the duet. Before that Karine Babajanyan has sung a glowing In quelle trine morbide, painted with surprisingly broad brush-strokes. The desolate last act aria is even darker in tone and she conveys the resignation with chilling effect.
 
Senza mamma from Suor Angelica is well suited to her though no one in my experience has surpassed Victoria de Los Angeles in her complete recording for EMI (review). I have recently listened to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Liù’s two arias from Turandot, in separate recordings she made 1949-1950 as well as in the complete recording (with Callas in the title role) made in 1957. About the latter I wrote that she ‘sings Liù with Lieder-like care for detail and nuance. Hers is not an Italianate voice but her approach to the role, closer to Mozart than Puccini, makes this a truly touching reading’. Karine Babajanyan shows strikingly what is missing with Schwarzkopf – the natural Italianate vibrancy. Liù is frail and vulnerable but she is also strong-willed and she has the strength and courage to set herself up against even the icy princess in the last act aria which here is given a reading in the top flight.
 
I’m afraid it was a mistake to place Nessun dorma as the last number of this recital. Firstly it makes better sense, even in a recital of separate numbers, to present the items in chronological order; secondly this is after all Babajanyan’s recital and it should have ended with her. Apart from that I am deeply impressed by the resources Giuseppe Giacomini could muster yesteryear.
 
Pier Giorgio Morandi knows his Puccini and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra is a splendid ensemble. The recording is fine and the only carping concerns the lack of printed texts.
 
A series of arias – and in this case also a couple of duets – is certainly revealing for a new artist but for a final verdict I would like to hear her also in a complete opera. The impression of this disc is however that Karine Babajanyan is eminently promising and I am convinced she will have a great career in years to come.
 
Göran Forsling
 

 


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