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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Excerpts from five of his popular operas: Bohème (1896); Madama Butterfly (1904); Tosca (1900); Turandot (1926); Manon Lescaut (1893)
Bargain price
EMI CLASSICS 5 75576 2
[5CDs: 289.40]


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These discs come in two 'double' jewel boxes together in a slipcase. The issue originates from EMI France, consequently the brief synopsis for each opera is in French only. None of the timings is particularly generous.

CD1 La Bohème

Nicolai Gedda, Rodolfo (ten)

Mirella Freni, Mimi (sop)

Mario Sereni, Marcello (bar)

Mario Basiola, Schaunard (bar)

Paolo Montarsolo, Alcindoro (bass)

Mariella Adani, Musetta (sop)

Ferruccio Mazzolli, Colline (bass)

Choeurs et Orchestre du Théâtre de l'Opéra de Rome/Thomas Schippers

Recorded Rome Opera House. September 1962 and July 1963. [56.47]

This recording is distinguished by the conducting of Schippers, whose pacing and phrasing seem ideal in these extracts, and by the singing of Freni as the fragile Mimi. Set against that the sometimes aggressive edge to her voice the microphone too near I suspect. Gedda, as Rodolfo, is adequate but in no way distinguished in his interpretation, whilst Sereni, as Marcello, sings far too loudly with not enough cover or variation of tone. Colline's Act 4 farewell to his coat (tr.11) is rather thinly voiced. In respect of both quantity and quality there are better Bohème extracts or highlights to be found. I recommend Bergonzi and Tebaldi at mid-price or Pavarotti and Freni, both on the Decca label. The latter is nominally at full price, but is frequently heavily discounted in UK superstores and by mail order.

CD2 Madama Butterfly

Victoria de los Angeles, Madama Butterfly (sop)

Jussi Björling, Pinkerton (ten)

Miriam Pirazzini, Suzuki (mezzo)

Mario Sereni, Sharpless (bar)

Choeurs et Orchestre du Théâtre de l'Opéra de Rome/Gabriele Santini

Recorded Rome Opera House. September 1959. [59.37]

This early stereo recording was a major player in the catalogue for some years, not being displaced in many collectors' affections by Barbirolli's 1966 version, also made in Rome. I suspect that EMI hoped to repeat the success of their La Bohème of three years earlier with the same soprano and tenor. However, that recording had Beecham on the podium; Santini here is a dull dog, even leaden at times.

The elegant singing of the two protagonists is the major attraction of this recording. Butterfly suits de los Angeles' light lyric soprano like a glove. She doesn't need any false lightening of the tone to sound like a young girl. Her purity of voice and characterisation are outstanding with 'Un bel di vidremo' (one fine day), track 6, a sheer delight. As the caddish Pinkerton, Bjorling's plangent tone and elegant phrasing, allied to his sense of style, match that of his partner. Sereni is more sensitive than on the 'Boheme' but of no great individuality The Suzuki is thin toned and inclined to wobble (tr 10-12). The recording is somewhat flat and recessed, but much improved since its appearance on LP! Unlike earlier versions of extracts from this performance, the 'Humming Chorus' is included (tr 13).

CD3 Turandot

Montserrat Caballé, Turandot (sop)

José Carreras, Calaf (ten)

Mirella Freni, Liù (sop)

Paul Plishka, Timur (bass)

Vicente Sardinero, Ping (ten)

Remy Corazza, Pang (ten)

Riccardo Cassinelli, Pong (ten)

Michel Sénéchal, Altoum (ten)

Maitrise de la Cathédrale de Strasbourg

Choeurs de l'Opera du Rhin

Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg/Alain Lombard

Recorded Strasbourg Cathedral. August 1977. [55.57]

This recording is curious in casting, conducting and recorded sound. Caballé is the outstanding lyric-voiced Liu to Sutherland's Turandot on Decca's outstanding 1972 recording, conducted with appropriate passion by Mehta. She brings a surprisingly good amount of heft and rich tone to her great aria (tr 8). Carreras, on the other hand has really to thicken and strain his essentially lyric tenor in 'Nessun dorma', (tr.14), and elsewhere. Freni is as strong and characterful a Liu as we might expect (tr.5), with good tone and legato, whilst Plishka's Timur sounds woolly.

The recording sets the voices disadvantageously far back in a resonant acoustic whilst the conductor lacks any feel for the sweep of Puccinian melody, often causing soloists to abbreviate their phrasing. The timing is distinctly sparse and compares unfavourably with the 70 minutes on Decca's mid-price issue. This is in their 'Opera Gala' series, from the Sutherland issue. It also includes words and translations. It is a much more worthy representation of Puccini's final work.

CD4 Manon Lescaut

Montserrat Caballé, Manon Lescaut (sop)

Placido Domingo, Des Grieux (ten)

Noel Mangin, Géronte de Ravoir (bass)

Vicente Sardinero, Lescaut (bar)

Ambrosian Opera Chorus

New Philharmonia Orchestra/Bruno Bartoletti

Recorded London. July 1971. [51.54]

Premiered on 1st February 1895 at the Teatro Regio, Turin, Manon was the composer's first popular success. This recording is distinguished by the singing of Caballé as Manon. Her pure tone, and variety of vocal colour and modulation, allied to delicate nuance of words, makes for superb characterisation of Manon's many moods. It is one of the finest interpretations of the part on disc and this is territory where there is much quality opposition. In 1971 Domingo was a bright-toned and ardent, but unimaginative, Des Grieux. His interpretation on the 1984 DG recording, under Sinopoli, finds him exhibiting much greater variety of tone and vocal sensitivity to convey a more subtle and rounded character. That being said, with the voices recorded well forward, the many duets of the opera, included here, are vocally thrilling. Bartoletti tends to follow his singers rather than Puccini.

At 51.54 minutes, including 4.43 of the Intermezzo, the timing is particularly stingy. More generous timing is available on DG from the Sinopoli set, also at bargain price, although the voices there are set rather too far back for full enjoyment. On the plus side here, the listener gets 'Sola Abbandonata' right to the final chords of the opera.

CD5 Tosca

Renata Scotto, Floria Tosca (sop)

Placido Domingo, Mario Cavaradossi (ten)

Renato Bruson, Scarpia (bar)

Ambrosian Opera Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra/James Levine

Recorded Kingsway Hall, London. July 1980. [65.05]

The clear digital sound on this Tosca is by far the best of the five operas in this collection. However, relative balance leaves something to be desired. The soprano and tenor in particular are set well forward with the orchestra more recessed. This aspect means that some orchestral details, such as at the killing of Scarpia (tr.10), go for less than full value. All the singing is distinguished and characterful. Domingo is virile of sound and young in timbre as an ardent Cavaradossi, whilst Scotto, as Tosca, is full of variety of tone, colour and nuance, albeit that the voice spreads at the top when under pressure. Bruson as Scarpia is smooth and even toned, being suitably threatening in the church (tr.4), and the extended Act 2 extracts (tr.5-10). It is also a pleasure to hear Capecchi as a secure Sacristan revelling in his own language.

Given the above I have often wondered why this issue appeared at less than full price so early in its life. (Callas's 1953 version remained at full price for nearly 50 years). Certainly, Levine's hard-driven interpretation would not be to everybody's liking, but it certainly provides moments of visceral excitement even if a little more affection would not have been amiss at times.

Robert J. Farr

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