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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Puccini Collection: La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly
rec. Puccini Opera Festival, Torre del Lago, May 2004, July-August 2007
Picture format: 16/9, NTSC. Sound format: Dolby Digital. DTS 5.1. LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1
Three operas for the price of one
DYNAMIC DVD VIDEO 33684 [3 DVDs: 130:00 + 118:00 + 124:00]

Experience Classicsonline

Puccini’s first two operas Le villi (1884) and Edgar, premiered at La Scala on 21 April 1889, were only modestly received. However, his publisher, Ricordi, stuck by him and commissioned a further work, Manon Lescaut. Puccini couldn’t settle with the chosen librettists. They were changed to the extent that none put his name to the programme at the premiere in 1893, but two of those involved by Ricordi, Giuseppe Giacosa and the poet Luigi Illica played an important part. These two were destined to be the librettists for the three operas included in this bargain collection. They are his most renowned and are the staple of every opera house in the world. Manon Lescaut’s resounding success set Puccini on a secure financial and artistic future. With the money he earned he set up home in Torre del Lago, a mere 15 or so miles from his birthplace at Lucca. It is now the home of the Puccini Opera Festival where these three recordings were made. The reeds of its lake, Massaciuccoli, provided the location for Puccini’s beloved wild-fowl shooting trips and also, perhaps, peace from the wife he stole from another man and who did not take kindly to his womanising. His former home is now a Puccini museum.

In 1930 a provisional theatre was built with the stage built on piles stuck in the lake. The following year Gigli sang in La Boheme with Madama Butterfly also performed. (Opera Magazine. Festivals Edition 2004 p.51 et seq). That was it until a visit from the Rome Opera in 1949 after which the first Puccini Festival took place in 1952. All was not simple; some years there were no performances whilst notable singers appeared in those few that did happen. In 1966 the Festival moved to reclaimed land and a theatre, seating around three thousand was built. It was not ideal with a campsite adjacent, but matters have improved significantly. Economic limitations have constrained the international nature of the participants, many now being more provincial. However, in 2004 a special effort was made to celebrate what was described as “fifty years of performances on the edge of the lake that Puccini loved”. It was also the centenary of the premiere of Madama Butterfly and that opera was chosen in celebration with special efforts made as to the casting and conductor.

Views of the open-air theatre can be seen, as can those of the replacement built for 2008 and seating three thousand two hundred spectators. It is set in a park with sculptures and works of art. In the present three operas the sound of the singers is clear but lacking in presence and ambience. The audience applause sounds distant and flat.

The slipcase cover of this three-for-the-price-of-one issue shows the three women of the three operas concerned, the centrepiece being Madama Butterfly. Each opera is contained in its own box, complete with an informed essay and synopsis along with chapter/track listings; no timings. Rather idiosyncratically, the listings for Boheme and Tosca are numbered from 1 for each act, making re-starting, checking or whatever more difficult than necessary. The listings for Butterfly follow the more traditional sequence from CH.1 through to the end without starting again for each act, albeit the numbering goes awry. In two instances CH.1 shows views of lake Massaciuccoli and the arrival of the audience as the light fades.

I have reviewed each of these recordings in the sequence of the operas’ composition rather than recording. All were recorded in the same theatre prior to the new theatre opening.

La Boheme - opera in four acts (1896)
Rodolfo - Massimiliano Pisapia (tenor); Mimi - Norma Fantini (soprano); Marcello - Gabriele Viviana (baritone); Musetta - Donata d’Annunzio Lombardi (soprano); Schaunard - Massimiliano Valleggi (baritone); Colline - Andrea Patucelli (bass); Alcindoro and Benoit - Franco Boscoli (tenor); Parpignol - Riccardo Del Picchia (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Festival Puccini/Stewart Robinson
rec. live, Festival Puccini, Torre del Lago, July 2007
Stage director: Maurizio Scaparro. Set and Costume Designer: Jean Michael Folon
Television Director: Mateo Ricchetti
Sung in Italian with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish
DYNAMIC DVD VIDEO 33564 [118:00]

This in-period production, on a curved, slightly raised platform, multi-coloured from Marcello’s paints, uses the most simplistic of sets and props. Realism is assisted by changing images on the rear cyclorama including that of a painting of a comely nude, the rooftops of Paris and snow falling. The main action is played out on a raised platform that represents Marcello’s paint palette. The only idiosyncrasy is the stove into which Rodolfo consigns his scripts in an effort to heat the lodgings; it is a round red floor area that glows appropriately as he feeds his scripts, much as one would post a letter. I merely wondered about the ash and the residents below!

The singing is good provincial Italian standard. Major drawbacks are Pisapia hardly having the figure du part for the ardent poet lover of Mimi and being smaller than her. His unbecoming appearance, rather stiff acting, lack of freedom at the top of his lyric-toned voice when added to his being smaller than Mimi militates against dramatic reality. Norma Fantini’s Mimi is strongly and warmly sung although her legato is not a strong point. The crossed lovers, Marcello and Musetta, sung by Gabriele Viviana and Donata d’Annunzio Lombardi, are better cast vocally and as actors. She plays the coquette to perfection and sings a good waltz song while throwing flowers onto Marcello’s lap at the adjoining table, to the evident chagrin of her latest lover who also is left with the bill.

Act 3, is a visual and vocal highlight. The scene outside the gate is very well presented with the help of the images on the cyclorama. The subsequent convincing singing and acting from the main quartet is at its best here and in final scene of the opera. With act 4 reverting to the garret quarters of the students, all depends on the emotions stirred by one of the most heart-rending scenes in opera. Here, the conducting of the Scottish Stewart Robinson ably assists the singers in their dramatic realisation. He allows them to phrase with elegance whilst drawing the powerful emotions in Puccini’s music fully into the open. I have not heard a performance under his direction before, but I would be very happy to hear him live; his is by far the best conducting in this collection. In this last act the tears are made to flow with Andrea Patucelli as Colline making his parting from his coat, Musetta’s giving up her jewels and Pisipia making a tender farewell to Mimi as they reprise the melodies of act 1.

Tosca - Opera in three acts (1900)
Tosca - Antonia Cifrone (soprano); Cavaradossi - Stefano Secco (tenor); Scarpia - Giorgio Surian (baritone); Angelotti - Riccardo Ferri (bass); Spoletta - Massimo La Guardia (baritone); Sacristan - Franco Boscolo (baritone)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Festival Puccini/Valerio Galli
rec. live, Festival Puccini, Torre del Lago, August 2007
Stage director: Mario Corradi. Set and Costume Designer: Igor Motoraj
Television Director: Mateo Ricchetti
Sung in Italian with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish
DYNAMIC DVD VIDEO 33569 [124:00]

If the sets of La Boheme were of the simplest, then the money saved must have been spent on this production. The gradual lighting of the Saint Andrea della Valle church is magical. So too is the evolution of the set into the mighty Te deum as Scarpia plots his evil deeds and sends his secret police in search of Angelotti and to follow Tosca. His hooded henchmen appear in unlikely places and if Cavaradossi’s painting of the Attavanti shows naked breasts, no wonder that Tosca has doubts about his fidelity. I thought that the only such sights in churches were of the Madonna suckling her infant!

Scarpia’s apartment in act 2 is superbly portrayed; his room comes with appropriate table, wine and knife and not far from a four-poster bed on which he throws Tosca before his intended rape. Not often have I been struck by the inappropriateness of the intrusion of Tosca’s prayer, Vissi d’arte, into the dramatic coherence of the opera as I was in this performance. Scarpia stroking her hand during the aria is hardly what he intended. It does give Tosca time to plan her actions after retrieving the secreted knife from under the pillow as Scarpia goes to write her a note to facilitate her escape from Rome, with, she hopes, Cavaradossi. Scarpia returns to finish his carnal intentions and gets something he did not expect. There is no placing of candles as he lies supine and dying on the bed as Tosca looks around, collects her cloak and departs.

I wondered how act 3 would be portrayed. Well, the dawn over Rome went missing, but that was all. There seemed to be a lack of battlement crenellations but there were substitutes and an adequate platform for Tosca to jump from with reasonable reality.

Antonia Cifrone sings a vibrant Tosca with acting in the Callas class and the odd sour note to go along with it. Stefano Secco’s Cavaradossi is lyric and ardent, a little strained in Recondita armonia, more plangent and lyrical in E lucevan le stelle. Giorgio Surian’s acted portrayal of Scarpia is appropriately haughty, scheming and brutal. Regrettably his tonal steadiness does not match those qualities. Among the minor parts Franco Boscolo as the put-upon Sacristan, who is mercilessly bullied by Scarpia, is superbly acted. The very young looking Valerio Galli on the rostrum gives a lyrical rather than a more appropriate dramatic reading.

Despite the various vocal limitations of the soloists, this traditionally staged performance gets to the core of one of Puccini’s most dramatic operatic compositions. The staging is as good and realistic as one is likely to see in these days of producer concepts and regietheater. As such it is to be commended and can be enjoyed.

Madama Butterfly - Opera in two acts (1904)
Madama Butterfly - Daniela Dessi (soprano). Pinkerton - Fabio Armiliato (tenor). Suzuki - Rossana Rinaldi (mezzo). Sharpless - Juan Pons (baritone). Goro - Luca Casalin (tenor). Il Bonze - Riccardo Zanellato (bass) Kate Pinkerton - Maria Cioppi (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Festival Puccini/Placido Domingo
rec. live, Festival Puccini, Torre del Lago, May 2004
Stage Director: Stefano Monti. Set Designer: Arnaldo Pomodoro. Costume Designer: Guillermo Mariotto
Television Director: Mateo Ricchetti
Sung in Italian with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese
DYNAMIC DVD VIDEO 33457 [130:00]

Premiered at La Scala, Milan in February 1904, Madama Butterfly was at first a failure and quickly withdrawn whilst the revision at Breschia on 28 May that same year was a great success, as has been the work ever since. For this special occasion a starrier cast than usual was assembled with Placido Domingo, a renowned interpreter of the anti-hero Pinkerton, on the rostrum. There the good news ends.

As a reviewer of live and recorded opera I have, over the last twenty years or so, got used to interpreting the production quirks of directors and set designers. However, never before I have I so utterly failed to comprehend either the setting or the relationship of the costumes, as in this production. The basic set could be on another planet, it entails Sharples and others in the cast wearing headgear with what look like protruding antennae. Or is the rock-strewn ground supposed to represent Hiroshima or Nagasaki after the A-Bomb strike in 1945 and the weird costumes the mutant humans after a dose of radiation? Butterfly looks magnificent as she arrives for her wedding to Pinkerton. But could a lowly geisha have afforded such a resplendent dress? In act two, living out in the open, she and Suzuki, and her rather mature child, are dressed for living out in the winter weather, despite the instructions to open the non-existent window. As to flowers in the famous duet, no sign of petals or anything. Goro, the marriage broker, is costumed as some kind of jungle animal whilst the wedding guests arrive seemingly dressed in duvets which they wind around themselves as they form into a closed circle and end up looking like a giant caterpillar! All the Americans are costumed in black. Not orthodox clothes, but off-beat concoctions - even Kate Pinkerton in the last scene. I hope I have made the point even if I am unable to offer an explanation.

The foregoing detracts from the one great virtue of this Butterfly, the singing of the eponymous role by Daniela Dessi. Hers is, without doubt, the class vocal act of this trilogy. Her tone is steady, pure and expressive. Her lover Lieutenant Pinkerton, the cynical user of people and Butterfly in particular, is sung by Fabio Armiliato who lacks the weight of tone required for the part and at times looks uninterested in the whole proceedings. Maybe, like me, he does not know what is going on. His costume, looking more like a Nazi henchman, is more hindrance and his failure as an actor simply adds insult. He stands aloof from his Butterfly in the lovely duet that concludes act 1, the intimacy of the scene lacking any magic with Domingo’s puerile efforts on the rostrum not helping. Juan Pons as Sharpless, an old associate of the conductor, has strength of tone, good expression but not much steadiness. The Suzuki of Rossana Rinaldi looks rather young and adds little to the drama as she prays to her Gods on Butterfly’s behalf.

I have already noted that the chapter/track listing numbers are wrong from the opening to the conclusion of this performance. A pity the Torre del Lago Festival, having cast one of the best interpreters of Butterfly to grace this special anniversary production, did not frame her performance more suitably.

Robert J Farr




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