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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca: Vissi d’arte; Le Villi: Se come vuoi; Manon Lescaut: In quelle trine morbide, Intermezzo, Act III, Sola, perduta,abbandonata; Sole e amore*, La Bohème: Sì, mi chiamano Mimì; Donde lieta uscì, Canto d’anime*, Madama Butterfly: Un bel dì vedremo, Intermezzo, Act II, La Rondine: Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta, Morire*, Suor Angelica: Senza mamma, Gianni Schicchi: O mio babbino caro; Turandot: Signore ascolta, Tu che di gel sei cinta
Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano), Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Lyon/Kent Nagano, items marked * with Roger Vignoles (piano)
Recorded at the Opéra National de Lyon from 14th-22nd May 1996
WARNER CLASSICS ELATUS 2564 60681-2 [63:24]


No one has ever accused Callas of being a "non-interventionist" interpreter, but her "Vissi d’Arte" is a fairly direct affair compared with the one which opens this disc, every note squeezed for effect, every syllable preened as though Kiri Te Kanawa wants to give the lie to those who say she makes a beautiful sound but passes over the words (at least when she is not singing English). Yet the effect, rather than heighten the emotions, is mannered and decorative; Liberty-style Puccini with festoons of sumptuous flowers around him. Was it ever thus?

Well, turning back to her 1981 "Vissi d’Arte" under the more no-nonsense but far from insensitive baton of John Pritchard (Nagano is perhaps too sympathetic to her wishes), I have to say it was not. The voice itself was better focused – by 1996 it was beginning to wobble around the note instead of going directly to it – and the interpretation was straightforward, maybe a little cool but attractive and surer in the high notes. If I want to hear a "Vissi d’arte" from Te Kanawa, then of the two it would be the earlier one (about half-way between them she recorded a complete Tosca with Solti which I don’t know).

Then comes the charming piece from Le Villi, with so much swooning around the line that it is hard to hear what the line actually is. On an old Cetra set of this opera Elisabetta Fusco under the well-versed Arturo Basile, at a slightly slower tempo, gives a much clearer idea of what the piece is about (but to be fair, near the beginning of the second stanza Fusco comes out with a high A the likes of which a paying public has a right to be protected against and nothing Te Kanawa does is in that category).

Why does this have to happen (it so often does)? It’s the old story, I suppose, of taking a beautiful (nay very beautiful) but not especially large voice and trying to make it just a little bigger than it really is.

But all is not lost. The voice in 1996 was still a very beautiful one and, when drama was not on the agenda, it could still sail to the heights as of yore, as in the Rondine piece, carrying the listener’s heart with it. I enjoyed "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì" and I am not sure that this "O mio babbino caro" is not an improvement on the 1981 version. I disliked her way of playing with the rhythm of the repeated notes at the beginning but thereafter she perhaps builds it up better than before.

So if you are a Te Kanawa fan (twenty-plus years ago I was myself but somewhere along the way she lost me) you should find more to enjoy than regret here. If you are principally a Puccini fan then maybe this is not the singer to add more than a gloss to what you already know, and that includes the three rare songs with piano, in which she does not sound entirely at her ease.

Christopher Howell


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