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Manon Lescaut: Donna non vidi mai; Intermezzo; Sola, perduta, abbandonata
Mirella Freni (Manon Lescaut), Placido Domingo (Des Grieux), Philharmonia Orchestra/Giuseppe Sinopoli
La Bohème: Che gelida manina; Sì, mi chiamano Mimì; O soave fanciulla; Quando men vo; Chi l'ha richiesto; Donde lieta uscì; Vecchia zimarra
Renata Tebaldi (Mimì); Gianna D'Angelo (Musetta); Carlo Bergonzi (Rodolfo); Ettore Bastianini (Marcello), Cesare Siepi (Colline), Santa Cecilia Chorus and Orchestra/Tullio Serafin
Tosca: Tre sbirri, una carrozza; Ed or fra noi; Orsù, Tosca, parlate; Nel pozzo, nel giardino! Vissi d'arte; E lucevan le stelle; Com'è lunga l'attesa; Presto, su! Mario!
Mirella Freni (Tosca), Placido Domingo (Cavaradossi), Samuel Ramey (Scarpia), Covent Garden Chorus and Orchestra/Giuseppe Sinopoli
Suor Angelica: Senza mamma
Mirella Freni (Suor Angelica)
Madama Butterfly: Viene la sera; Bimba degli occhi pieni di malìa; Un bel dì vedremo; Humming Chorus; Tu? Tu! Piccolo Iddio
Mirella Freni (Madama Butterfly), José Carreras (Pinkerton), Teresa Berganza (Suzuki), Ambrosian Opera Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra/Giuseppe Sinopoli
Turandot: Signore, ascolta; Non piangere, Liù; Olà Pang! Olà Pong! In questa reggia; Nessun dorma! Quel nome! Tanto amore segreto; Tu che di gel sei cinta; C'era negli occhi tuoi; Diecimila anni
Katia Ricciarelli (Turandot), Ruggiero Raimondi (Timur), Placido Domingo (Calaf); Barbara Hendricks (Liù), Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
DG Panorama 469 175-2 [2 CDs: 74.01, 76.33]
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Tullio Serafin's conducting of Sì, mi chiamano Mimì makes a fascinating contrast with his perhaps better-known conducting of the aria for Maria Callas. In each case he seems to have understood the type of performance which that particular voice was best suited to give, and to have allowed the singer full rein to give that performance. So in place of Callas's dramatic intensity and sometimes guttural tones, here we have perhaps the most sheerly beautifully sung - beautifully? No, angelically! - performance the aria can ever have had. All the other singers benefit from Serafin's gentle nurturing. Bergonzi's Rodolfo is a stream of glorious sound and if Gianna D'Angelo has a rather soubrettish voice the performance of Quando men vo is overall revelatory for the way in which the slowish tempo is so beautifully poised that the music flows forward without the slightest heaviness. For it is Serafin's control over the tempi which are the secret of his success. Phrases are caressed lovingly and he seems to have all the time in the world to make his points, yet he never stops. Rather, he sets up a rhythmic undulation which, like the waves of the sea, has such an inevitability that the music is carried inexorably forward. So this is great conducting from a musician born and bred in the same musical environment as Puccini himself.

Italian conductors of the generation following Serafin have had an uneasy relationship with Puccini. So far as I am aware Giulini never conducted any at all, certainly not on record, and during Abbado's reign at La Scala Puccini was usually farmed out to Georges Prêtre's erratic baton. Muti has latterly made a few heavy-handed attempts at the composer, but in the late 80s and early 90s the management of La Scala discovered that Gianandrea Gavazzeni was still alive and there followed a series of performances, generally with casts similar to those who were recording the same works under Sinopoli at about the same time, which showed that the old caressing Puccini-beat was not dead. It is to be hoped that the vaults of Italian Radio conserve these performances and that they may one day be issued.

Of the leading Italian conductors now around middle age, Chailly and (more surprisingly) Sinopoli have shown considerable interest in Puccini. And the earliest of the three Sinopoli performances here, the 1984 Manon, preserves more of Serafin's qualities than one would have dared to expect. There is the same gentle caressing of phrases (the strings produce an exquisitely dolce sound) and the right ebb and flow, although the later stages of the Intermezzo find him forging ahead with a touch of hysteria which the older Italian conductors would not have allowed. Domingo is in fine form and Freni, if not quite as seamless in her emission as Tebaldi, produces a consistently warm, involving sound. The gradual darkening in Freni's originally very light tones enabled her to take on more dramatic roles at a moment when leading practitioners such as Scotto and Caballé were becoming less active, although setting the four performances here in chronological order (last is the Suor Angelica extract from 1994) shows that she has not encompassed dramatic roles without some forcing, which has gradually taken its toll.

Four years later Sinopoli's hand has become heavier (Un bel dì starts well but never gets going) and renders vain the efforts of the singers who, under a different conductor, might have produced the light touch which this opera requires.

On another four years and his Tosca is a mixed affair indeed. Tre sbirri does indeed have the true Puccinian inevitability of movement to it, but the two famous arias stagnate. The rather unusual selection reveals that Sinopoli has a fine ear for the more malicious effects in the score, yet his interest seems mainly intellectual and at times he seems to have a perverse desire to see how slow it is possible to go.

Karajan's discography contains some famous Puccini recordings. His late attempt at Turandot raised eyebrows for the casting of two ladies who would never have had the heft for their roles in the theatre. But Karajan, like Glenn Gould, was never one to believe that a performance constructed specially for the gramophone should be a mere photograph of a public performance. In fact, it works fascinatingly well. Hendricks's singing is exquisitely even and Karajan is able to draw diaphanous sounds from the orchestra which mean she never has to pretend her voice is larger than it is. Even more surprising is Ricciarelli. There are occasional moments of forcing at the more dramatic moments, but for the most part this is a golden-voiced, steady-toned assumption, with rather more humanity and vulnerability than we usually hear. In her home country Ricciarelli has become one of those singers that every intellectual musician loves to hate (her vocal decline is undeniable, but her real sin seems to be that she married one of Italy's most popular TV presenters) so let it be remembered that she has much fine work to her credit. Domingo is at his very best (Pavarotti-lovers will find Nessun dorma on the slow side, but this is because Pavarotti sings it faster than most other tenors) and Karajan's mastery is in no doubt. The sheer sumptuousness of the climaxes may seem Straussian, even Korngoldian, but it's a fantastic sound all the same and is nowhere used against the interests of the music.

As a Puccini primer, then, this is rather mixed. It was a pleasure to be reminded of the beauties of Serafin's Bohème, and also to be alerted to the fact that Karajan's Turandot may have been seriously underestimated. The Sinopoli Manon was also welcome, but given the wealth of Puccini performances which the combined DG, Decca and Philips catalogues contain it seems rather unimaginative to have used so much Sinopoli material, a choice which makes an overall recommendation difficult.

Christopher Howell

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