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Opera Double Pack DVD

Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème (1896)
Mimi (sop) – Mirella Freni
Rodolfo (tenor) – Luciano Pavarotti
Musetta (sop) – Sandra Pacetti
Marcello (bar) – Gino Quilico
Colline (bass) – Nicolai Ghiaurov
Schaunard (bar) – Stephen Dickson
Benoit (bass) – Italo Tajo
Alcindoro (bass) – Italo Tajo
Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera/Tiziano Severini
Recorded San Francisco Opera House, 1988
ARTHAUS DVD 1000 056 [116 minutes]

Madama Butterfly (1904)
Cio-Cio San (sop) – Yasuko Hayashi
Suzuki (mezzo) – Hak-Nam Kim
Pinkerton (tenor) – Peter Dvorsky
Sharpless (bar) – Giorgio Zancanaro
Kate Pinkerton (mezzo) – Anna Caterina
Goro (tenor) – Ernesto Gavazzi
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Lorin Maazel
Recorded La Scala, Milan. 1986
ARTHAUS DVD 1000 110 [144 minutes]

Packaged conveniently as a cheap double DVD set, these two discs should do well in the general music lovers market. Both productions are safe, reliable and thoroughly traditional, with no hint of controversy or ‘boat-rocking’ to upset anyone. I have lived with the Bohème for some time now, having bought it on its first video release in 1989. With sharper picture and infinitely better sound quality, there is obvious enjoyment to be had, though the same irritations I have always had are still there. These centre on the tiresomely outdated practice of curtain calls after every act, as well as thunderous applause for every ‘big’ aria or set piece. It’s doubtful whether any modern theatre director worth their salt would allow this, as it seriously disrupts dramatic flow and credibility, and gets worse on repeated viewings. At least the singers hold their poses during the rapturous clapping, and they are obviously from performing traditions where this happens a lot. But compared with, say, Baz Luhrmann’s grippingly provocative Sydney production, set in the 1950s and with vibrant young singers (now wowing Broadway and in serious need of transfer to DVD), this all seems a mite quaint and old fashioned. Still, there is much to enjoy, with the starry cast in good voice and very experienced in their roles.

Compared to his classic recording with Karajan, Pavarotti sounds a bit strained in places, and he has his big Act 1 aria ‘Che gelida manina’ transposed down a semitone, something that was to become an all too familiar trend in his later stage performances.

Mirella Freni, his long time friend and singing partner, is on good form, though she too is less ‘free’ in the top registers than she had been on the Karajan set.

Characterisation is, however, spot on, and the tender duets are meltingly memorable. Act 3 is particularly impressive, where Puccini’s superb orchestration and flawless dramatic grip are well realised by cast and director. Conducting throughout is disciplined and tight, though after hearing Serafin, Beecham or Karajan, it sounds a touch workmanlike. Booklet notes are perfunctory, and it is a great pity that the original, provocative essay by the much-missed William Mann, entitled ‘Puccini’s Hymn to Youth’, has gone.

The Butterfly disc has tighter conducting from Maazel, who on his day can be as dramatically incisive as anyone. This production aims at a sort of ‘authenticity’, being based around Japanese prints and silhouettes, and having two Japanese leads as Cio-Cio San and Suzuki. Yasuko Hayashi’s portrayal of ‘little Butterfly’ is perhaps a bit on the serious side (even dour at times) but it does make theatrical sense, and it plays nicely alongside Dvorsky’s charlatan Pinkerton. Both are in excellent voice, and Maazel paces the score to suit the ebb and flow of the tension, expanding majestically for the long Act 1 duet. It is not quite as probing a production as the recent Covent Garden one, but is an eminently ‘safe’ bet for the money.

In fact, this double pack is hard to beat for value, and the lack of extras has to be set against its cheap price. Aficionados of the composer may be waiting for more searching productions, but until they come along, these will do very nicely.

Tony Haywood

see also review by John Leeman

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