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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)
Popular Puccini: Tosca, Boheme, Butterfly - three films of Puccini’s most popular Operas in one box. Original Language - Italian, with subtitles, filmed by Unitel Classics. Full details below.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 073 4417 [363:00]
Experience Classicsonline

The 1975 Film of Tosca is very well known and respected and it is good to see it re-issued. Authentic-looking Napoleonic era costumes are used and the film was shot on location at the settings in Rome specified by Puccini: The Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle for Act 1, The Palazzo Farnese for Act 2 and the top of Castel Sant’Angelo for Act 3. These authentic locations, filmed with loving detail, add greatly to the spirit of the opera. It is the most dramatic which Puccini wrote and is my personal favourite of his operas. This is a brilliant example of the power of filming outside the boundaries of the opera house.

The Hungarian diva Raina Kabaivanska had sung the role of Tosca several times before she appeared in this film and she is in good voice. She is a beautiful woman and quite young in this film. Hers is a fascinating part, showing jealousy in the first act, horror and murderous rage in the second act culminating in suicidal despair in the last act. I am perhaps being unreasonable, but with her modern haircut and a default appearance of cool beauty, I cannot help compare her to the Mediterranean frenzy portrayed by singers such as Maria Callas - or Maria Guleghina in the 2003 La Scala DVD. However you cannot have everything and Kabaivanska’s chemistry with Placido Domingo is palpable.

Domingo is, as usual, brilliant as Cavaradossi and his beautiful rendition of ‘Recondita armonia’ is one of the highlights of this disc, imaginatively filmed to accentuate the contrast between the two women of his affections. For some reason he is bearded and looks rather plump – quite different from his usual suave handsome clean-shaven appearance.

Sherrill Milnes is vocally superb and captures the cruelty and wicked lust of Scarpia with every breath. However this is a cold character and Milnes does not go overboard with the histrionics demonstrated in some characterisations – to my mind this makes his interpretation all the more sinister. Another highlight of this disc is in the performance of Scarpia’s aria at the end of the first act where against the background of the service we see him pacing through the building singing about his evil plans for Angelotti and for Tosca. The effect is powerful and would not be possible on the stage.

The opening scene of the last Act is magical as the camera scans the country scenes, taking in the sheep being herded and the shepherd boy (Plácido Domingo junior) as he sings his song. The duet between Cavaradossi and Tosca is intensely moving and the execution scene is most realistically acted. After Tosca has thrown herself from the tower, we see her limp body on the ground bleeding to death - a shocking end to a shocking opera!

Franco Zeffirelli’s 1963 Milan production of La Bohème was the basis for the 1965 film. The first and last Acts, set in the Parisian garret, appear to come straight from the opera house set; however in the Second Act filming comes into its own and the Street scene and the interior of the Café Momus are spacious and realistic. Similar veracity is injected into the Third Act with very convincing Inn tableau and the snow in the exterior scenes. This makes a great difference to the appearance of the opera. That said, in some ways the film seems a little old fashioned in places and the lip synchronisation is not always perfect.

Whatever the appearance, the biggest reason for choosing this version of the opera lies in the musical performance. In particular the conducting of Herbert von Karajan is exemplary. As you would expect, the orchestral playing is splendid, but more important is the sense of restrained passion and the overall control of the architecture of the score. The balance with the singing is always good and Karajan has an artful way of bring to life the leitmotifs that are abundant in the score.

The other wonderful thing about this set is the singing of Mirella Freni. She is one of the great singers of the second half of the twentieth century and is particularly good in Puccini. Here her voice is young and fresh and perhaps at its best. She and Karajan got on well with each other and the combination is ideal.

Gianni Raimondi misses the allure of Pavarotti - who was subsequently to sing alongside Freni in this opera - but nonetheless is a good and stylish singer and the other male singers are all excellent performers. I found Adriana Martino a stylish and suitably sexy Musetta and she has some fine comic moments.

In many ways this is an ensemble opera, with the great solo parts concentrated in the first Act ‘Che gelida mania’ (one of the world’s most popular arias) and ‘Si Mi chiamano Mimi’ which are done beautifully here. The final scenes of the opera are overwhelmingly sad in this fine performance.

Madama Butterfly is one of the most tragic operas ever written. An innocent 15 year old Japanese girl in order to escape poverty, marries an opportunistic US sea captain despite the objections of her family. She is seduced and abandoned but waits for her husband to return as promised although her family abandons her. Eventually he does return, married to an American woman, she is robbed of her child and commits suicide. The main character has to project timidity and strength combined with strength and obstinacy. Mirella Freni is perfect and is not only totally believable in the part but also combines this acting ability with singing of the highest quality. She must be one of the best Cio-Cio-Sans ever.

Herbert von Karajan is as good here as in Bohème, if not better. The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is faultless and Karajan’s control of the overall shape of the music, whilst never losing the details, or overpowering the singers, is unsurpassable. Once again it is demonstrated how well Freni and Karajan work together. This is especially demonstrated in the long love duet that is sensual in the extreme, with a soaring melodic line. The great aria ‘Un bel di’ has never sounded so powerful nor the humming chorus so magical.

A young Plácido Domingo is vocally in fine form and projects the rakish character of Pinkerton to perfection. He is most convincing in the love duet where you feel that at least at that moment he feels strongly for the girl he will soon so casually discard. Christa Ludwig is very good in the role of matronly confidante to Butterfly and her voice is caught at its best. Robert Kerns gives a fine performance as the United States Consul at Nagasaki; a good man who is powerless to prevent the tragedy that he obviously foresees. The other parts are also played well, especially the Japanese characters.

From a musical or acting viewpoint this performance is almost perfect, but what of the sets and costumes? Here alas some doubts arise. Butterfly is often presented in staging that is full of oriental exoticism. With outside filming it would have been possible to have shots of the harbour or of the ship coming in; instead we get a low key small house with paper partitions and an outside expanse of coastal grasses. We must assume that this approach is one designed by Ponnelle to match the tragedy of the story and I for one applaud this decision. There are however problems which whilst not major are annoying. Apart from the old problems with getting exact lip synchronisation, most of these concern Domingo, who despite the story being set in 19th century Japan is shown wearing an obviously 20th century T-shirt. He is also shown chewing gum … even when singing! These problems are small when set against the overwhelming merits of the performance.

The film is based upon a recording for Decca with the identical cast apart from Luciano Pavarotti playing the part of Pinkerton. It was decided to use this recording as the basis of the sound-track of the film. For some reason Pavarotti’s part had to be substituted with Domingo and spliced into the earlier recording. Comparing the two is fascinating as there is little difference; the two great tenors have distinctive differences in timbre – but who could say which is best in this part?

All three discs are packed into a single box that is little thicker than the standard DVD box. The presentation of the discs is good with useful documentation. Despite their age, all three look well and have good sound – amazing for material which is thirty years old or greater.

Arthur Baker

Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)
Tosca - opera in three acts (1900)
Floria Tosca, famous singer -Raina Kabaivanska
Mario Cavaradossi, painter - Plácido Domingo
Il barone Scarpia, chief of police - Sherrill Milnes
Cesare Angelotti, escaped political prisoner - Giancarlo Luccardi
Spoletta, police agent - Mario Ferrara
The sacristan - Alfredo Mariotti
Ambrosian Singers
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Bruno Bartoletti
Director: Gianfranco de Bosio
Filmed on location in Rome, September and October 1976 (Unitel)
rec. London, Walthamstow Hall, August 1976
NTSC/Colour/4:3, PCM Stereo/DTS 5.1,
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)
La Bohème - opera in four acts (1897)
Mimi - Mirella Freni
Musetta - Adriana Martino
Rodolfo, poet - Gianni Raimondi
Marcello, painter - Rolando Panerai
Schaunard, musician - Gianni Maffeo
Colline, philosopher - Ivo Vinco
Benoit, landlord - Carlo Badioli
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala/Herbert von Karajan
Producer: Franco Zeffirelli
rec. 15 April-5 May 1965 (Unitel)
NTSC/Colour/4:3, PCM Stereo/DTS 5.1

Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)
Madama Butterfly - opera in three acts (1904)
Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly) - Mirella Freni
B. F. Pinkerton, lieutenant in the United States Navy - Plácido Domingo
Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San's servant - Christa Ludwig
Sharpless, United States Consul at Nagasaki - Robert Kerns
Goro, nakodo (a marriage broker) - Michel Sénéchal
Konzertverinigung; Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
Producer: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Filmed at Berlin, Union Film, November-December 1974 (Unitel)
rec. Vienna, Sofiensaal, January, September 1974
NTSC/Colour/4:3, PCM Stereo/DTS 5.0


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