Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
The Great Operas: La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West, Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi, Turandot
see end of review for performance details
REGIS RRC 9011 [13 CDs: c.14:00:00]
Here are riches indeed - some of the greatest performances ever of all of Puccini’s operas with the exception of the early Villi, Edgar and Manon Lescaut and the neglected La rondine. All the recordings date from the 1950s, but most were, in their day, regarded as among the best versions available, and the sound generally remains quite listenable if not ideally rich.
Let us get the one exception to this out of the way first. The live recording of La Fanciulla del West is interesting for Mitropoulos’s vigorous and impassioned conducting, but for very little else. Mario del Monaco was pretty vulgar in his later Decca stereo reading of the opera, but here the vulgarity is almost totally unalloyed by the slightest hint of subtlety, and he is sometimes reduced to unmusical shouting. Eleanor Steber, who was basically a lyric soprano and a very good one at that, is way out of her depth in the more dramatic sections of the score, of which there are many. The stentorian Gian Giacomo Guelfi is just out of his depth. EMI did make a recording of the opera five years later, with the young Birgit Nilsson in the title role, but it would appear that Regis have been unable to access this recording even though it would appear to be out of copyright by now. Be that as it may, the recording here is pretty terrible and the applause of the audience interrupts the flow of the music too often. Even the beautiful solo for Jake Wallace cannot survive this sort of sound. This reading does not appear to have been made available except in this Regis transfer, and to be frank this is not very surprising.
On the other hand the earlier Callas Tosca which we are given here has acquired a legendary reputation, and quite rightly too. Forget about the mono sound - which has nevertheless a surprising degree of presence and resonance; here we have a great artist in her absolute prime - and Callas in her prime was great, whatever may have happened afterwards - with her traditional sparring partner in Gobbi and her traditional leading man in di Stefano. All three later re-recorded their roles in stereo, but by that date the voices of Callas and di Stefano were both in sad decline, and Gobbi, for all the increased subtlety of his later reading, did not surpass his earlier reading for sheer vehemence. Those who are sceptical about Callas really need to see the video of Act Two which she recorded at Covent Garden - for all the fallibility of her voice she really was a superb actress - and this recording gives us a chance to appreciate her art before her voice all too soon started to decay. By the way, in a recent review of a Verona production on DVD I referred to Sardou’s play as a “creaking melodrama”. This was unjust. Sardou’s play itself was a finely woven tissue of historical research and fictional characters; by the time Giacosa and Illica had cut it back to its bare essentials, nothing was left but the “melodrama” to which I alluded so disparagingly. Callas can almost convince us that the elaborate background of Sardou’s original was in her mind when she delved so deeply into the dramatic aspects of the role.
Callas’s recording of Turandot which is also included in this collection is more of a mixed blessing. Her voice was not really cut out for the role of the icy princess, and the dramatic subtlety which she brought to her singing is rather wasted here. Sutherland in her recording of more than twenty years later showed that a dramatic coloratura could tackle a role that is traditionally associated with Wagnerian heldensoprani ‘slumming it’ in Puccini, but Callas doesn’t have the same steely sheen that makes Sutherland so impressive. In the same way Schwarzkopf’s subtlety of shading is quite out of character in the basically simple and compassionate role of the slave girl. She does not sound even vaguely Italianate - was her producer and husband Walter Legge trying to get her set up for a profitable career in Italian opera? Eugene Fernandi simply is not glamorous enough for the part of Calaf, which really demands a dramatic Italian tenor with a melting centre; Pavarotti and Domingo in modern days have shown us how this can be done, and Corelli and del Monaco showed similar if rather less nuanced aptitudes for the role in earlier generations. Fernandi is a lyric tenor pure and simple, and he has to strain and force uncomfortably in the many stressful climaxes; he is ill-advised to take the optional top C towards the end of the Second Act, which sounds as if it has been ‘spliced’ in from another take - track 4, 2.34. Giuseppe Nessi as the Emperor adopts a ‘funny voice’ for the old man which is neither funny, musical, nor very audible. Serafin could be a somewhat lackadaisical conductor, but he injects plenty of venom and energy into the score even if the end of the First Act could do with more sheer drive and momentum. He makes all the cuts which once used to be standard in the scene of the Masks at the beginning of the Second Act; these are annoying although the singing of the three ministers in the scene is not of the best, even though they do try to produce the falsetto sound required by the composer at places.
Similarly incomplete, in a different way, is Belezza’s reading of Il tabarro. In order to create a realistic impression of Parisian city life, Puccini wrote into the score at various points cues for motor horns and tugboat sirens. Belezza simply omits these - did he find them ‘unmusical’? - and thereby undermines a whole dimension of the composer’s intentions. The sound is not really glamorous enough for this Debussian score, with the voices set very far forward; and Giacinto Prandelli is a very unglamorous Luigi with a voice almost totally lacking in romantic ardour. Margaret Mas is better if somewhat matronly, but this set is primarily recommendable for Gobbi’s barge-master, an interpretation at once subtle and menacing. The young Piero de Palma, the regular Italian comprimario in so many sets of the period, displays a beautifully lyric line as one of the offstage lovers. Belezza is quite brisk in places - he hustles Miriam Pirazzini in her aria - but the final scenes expand more appropriately.
The recordings of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi were originally made separately but were included with Il tabarro in a boxed set when they were reissued by EMI in 1976 as part of a complete Trittico. The recording of the comedy was made in stereo, and despite a somewhat forward placing of the voices still sounds good; that for Angelica was mono, but the orchestral balance remains exemplary and for once we can clearly hear the unorthodox scoring for offstage piano duet and organ in the final scene. The performances are both very good, with many of the best Italian singers of the period clearly enjoying themselves in various character parts. Victoria de los Angeles is superlative in Angelica - although the high pianissimo at the end of Senza mamma and her high C later clearly strain her to the utmost, and could be more delicately poised - and nicely contrasted as Lauretta in Schicchi; Gobbi in the latter is a model of sly humour, recalling in many ways his Falstaff. Fedora Barbieri has the deep notes required for the Aunt in Angelica but rises magnificently to her climaxes in a properly implacable manner, quite simply one of the best vocal assumptions on disc. There is more light and shade to the character than she finds here. The conducting on both discs is superb, a model of how these scores should be handled; Serafin clearly and quite rightly loves the often-underrated Suor Angelica, and gives a magnificent performance of the atmospheric ‘intermezzo’ which leads into the final scene.
For Madama Butterfly we are given the 1954 EMI recording with Victoria de los Angeles as opposed to that made by the same company two years later with Callas. The Spanish soprano cannot match Callas in the subtlety of her interpretation, but her very feminine heroine makes a touching impression and she rises with strength to the moments of high passion. Similarly Gavazzeni as a conductor misses many of the points that Karajan supplied for Callas. His reading is nevertheless nicely paced and has plenty of atmosphere even if the recording lacks the weight that the climactic moments ideally demand and the orchestral playing is sometimes rather untidy. Gobbi is again a tower of strength, making the American consul a sympathetic character but also bringing out the strength of personality in a character who has more moral integrity than his anti-heroic compatriot. In that role di Stefano is at the peak of his form, and assumes the part of the playboy with a facility that probably came only too naturally to him.
This leaves us with the famous Beecham recording of La Bohème. The old magician stamps his personality on the score from the fizzing beginning - there is plenty of sly humour - and the sound is nicely balanced if inevitably somewhat dated. Beecham is sometimes very slow but he wrings out every ounce of emotion from the score, and he has an exceptionally fine cast. Victoria de los Angeles is ideal as the impoverished seamstress, and the Bohemians are a characterful bunch even if Lucine Amara produces a rather curdled tone as Musetta. The set - and the bonus tracks provided - however highlight Jussi Björling, and rightly so. “Son un poeta”, he sings, and he is a poet indeed, phrasing with a delicate rubato and providing plenty of passionate emotion. It is not a conventionally Italianate voice, but it has the right sort of ring, and he does not spoil the end with histrionic sobbing - like so many of his rivals on disc. The bonus tracks on this CD spotlight him in three arias from Manon Lescaut, singing with rather more generalised ardour; two of the tracks here are drawn from the complete RCA recording. The two tracks from Tosca bring very good sound, but the much earlier recording of the aria from La fanciulla suffers from a very backward orchestral balance which detracts from Björling’s forthright performance. The valuable collection concludes with a wartime recording of Nessun dorma which displays a young Björling in more lyrical mood than in his later recording with Nilsson - no chorus. His drinking companion Grevillius conducts with plenty of feeling for the needs of the singer.
The bonus tracks are otherwise of variable importance. It seems odd to include excerpts from the Beecham Bohème at the end of Suor Angelica when we already have the complete performance elsewhere in this collection, but presumably this reflects the original single issue of that opera. We have two versions of Donde lieta usci. Olivero is set very forward in a pretty abysmal recording - the sound in the arias from Manon Lescaut is no better, although somewhat stronger in Sola, perduta, abbandonata - and her voice sounds unnaturally thin in the 1949 tracks if rather better in the 1950 recording. Victoria de los Angeles, in different readings to those on the Beecham recording, is more substantial in tone but the orchestra is rather backwardly placed. We also have Welitsch and Tucker in the love duet from Tosca, a very good recording for its date (1950) with the two singers giving a beautifully nuanced performance, although Welitsch in Vissi d’arte pales next to Callas. Bidù Sayao in O mio babbino caro produces a very ‘period’ sound and her performance is very straightforward. The recorded sound is good for its period.
The box contains neither synopses, nor texts/translations, but presumably those wishing to collect these operas and these recordings will already have these available elsewhere. Those wanting a ‘bumper box’ of Puccini operas in more modern sound could perhaps be more safely directed to Decca’s ‘definitive collection’ which includes Sutherland and Pavarotti under Mehta in Turandot (highly recommendable), Karajan’s Butterfly and Bohème with Freni and Pavarotti (both extremely good), the same singers with Rescigno in Tosca and with Levine in Manon Lescaut. They will need to look elsewhere for a Fanciulla del West, but the same could be said of this collection; and for the Trittico operas Pappano’s EMI set is probably the best of those currently available.
This Regis collection does not include Manon Lescaut, but it does have all the other mature Puccini works. The performances as a whole would be a valuable supplement to any opera-lover’s collection, not just for a reminder of how things were done in the 1950s but as priceless documents in their own right. We must be grateful for the opportunity to acquire these recordings in such a convenient format and at such a reasonable cost.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
We must be grateful for the opportunity to acquire these recordings in such a convenient format and at such a reasonable cost.
Masterwork Index: La Bohème
La Bohème (1896)
Jussi Björling (tenor) - Rodolfo; Victoria de los Angeles (soprano) - Mimi; Robert Merrill (baritone) - Marcello; John Reardon (baritone) - Schaunard; Lucine Amara (soprano) - Musetta; Giorgio Tozzi (bass) - Colline; Fernando Corena (bass) - Alcindoro, Benoit; William Nahr (tenor) - Parpignol; Thomas Powell (bass) - Customs officer; George del Monte (bass) - Sergeant; Columbia Boychoir, RCA Victor Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham, RCA recording, 1956
Maria Callas (soprano) - Tosca; Giuseppe di Stefano (tenor) - Cavaradossi; Tito Gobbi (baritone) - Scarpia; Franco Calabrese (bass) - Angelotti; Melchiorre Luise (baritone) - Sacristan; Angelo Mercuriali (tenor) - Spoletta; Darlo Caselli (bass) - Sciarrone, Gaoler; Alvaro Cordova (treble) - Shepherd boy; La Scala Chorus and Orchestra/Victor de Sabata (not as shown in the booklet), EMI recording, 1953
Madama Butterfly (revised version, 1904)
Victoria de los Angeles (soprano) - Butterfly; Giuseppe di Stefano (tenor) - Pinkerton; Tito Gobbi (baritone) - Sharpless; Anna Maria Canali (mezzo) - Suzuki; Maria Huder (mezzo) - Kate Pinkerton; Renato Ercolani (tenor) - Goro; Arturo la Porta (bass) - Bonze; Bruno Sbalchiero (bass) - Imperial commissioner; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Gianandrea Gavazzeni, EMI recording, 1954
La Fanciulla del West (1910)
Eleanor Steber (soprano) - Minnie; Mario del Monaco (tenor) - Johnson; Gian Giacomo Guelfi (baritone) - Rance; Piero de Palma (tenor) - Nick; Vito Susca (baritone) - Ashby; Enzo Viaro (bass) - Sonora; Brenno Ristori (tenor) - Trin; Lido Pettini (tenor) - Sid; Virgilio Carbonari (bass) - Bello; Valiano Natali (bass) - Harry; Enzo Guagni (baritone) - Joe; Agostino Ferrin (tenor) - Happy; Giorgio Giorgetti (baritone) - Larkens; Paolo Washington (bass) - Billy; Laura Didier (mezzo) - Wowkle; Giorgio Tozzi (bass) - Jake; Mario Frosini (bass) - Castro; Alberto Lotti Camici (Post rider) Chorus and Orchestra of Maggio Musicale Fiorentini/Dimitri Mitropolous, live recording, 1954
Il tabarro (1918)
Tito Gobbi (baritone) - Michele; Margaret Mas (soprano) - Giorgetta; Giacinto Prandelli (tenor) - Luigi; Piero de Palma (tenor) - Tinca, Lover; Plinio Clabassi (bass) - Talpa; Mariam Pirazzini (contralto) - Frugola; Renato Ercolani (tenor) - Song-seller; Sylvia Bertona (soprano) - Lover; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Vincenzo Bellezza, EMI recording, 1956
Suor Angelica (1918)
Victoria de los Angeles (soprano) - Angelica; Fedora Barbieri (mezzo) - Zia Principessa; Lidia Marimpietri (soprano) - Genovietta; Santa Chrissari (Osmina; Mina Doro (contralto) - Abbess; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Tullio Serafin, EMI recording, 1957
Gianni Schicchi (1918)
Tito Gobbi (baritone) - Schicchi; Victoria de los Angeles (soprano) - Lauretta; Carlo del Monte (tenor) - Rinuccio; Anna Maria Canali (mezzo) - Zita; Lidia Marimpietri (soprano) - Nella; Paolo Montarsolo (bass) - Simone; Adelio Zagonara (baritone) - Gherardo; Claudio Cornoldi (treble) - Gherardino; Saturno Meletti (bass) - Betto; Fernando Valentini (bass) - Marco; Giuliana Raymondi (mezzo) - Ciesca; Rome Opera Orchestra/Gabriele Santini, EMI stereo recording, 1958
Maria Callas (soprano) - Turandot; Eugenio Fernandi (tenor) - Calaf; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) - Liu; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) - Timur; Giuseppe Nessi (tenor) - Altoum; Mario Borriello (baritone) - Ping; Renato Ercolani (tenor) - Pang; Piero de Palma (tenor) - Pong, Prince of Persia; Giulio Mauri (baritone) - Mandarin; Elisabetta Fusco and Pinuccia Perotti (sopranos) - Voices; La Scala Chorus and Orchestra/Tullio Serafin, EMI recording, 1954
Bonus Tracks listed at the end of review
Donna non vidi mai
Jussi Björling, Stockholm Royal Opera Orchestra/Nils Grevillius rec. 1948
In quelle trine morbide: Sola, perduta, abandonnata
Magda Olivero, RAI Turin Orchestra/Alfredo Simonetti rec. 1949
Ah! Manon, mi tradisce: Presto in fila…No! Pazzo son!
Jussi Björling, Licia Albanese, Franco Calabrese, Enrico Campi, Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Jonel Perlea rec. 1954
Si, mi chiamano Mimi: Donde lieta usci
Victoria de los Angeles, Rome Opera Orchestra/Giuseppe Morelli rec. 1954
Si, mi chiamano Mimi: O soava fanciulla: Addio…Donde lieta usci
[from the Beecham recording listed above]
Donde lieta usci
Magda Olivero, RAI Turin Orchestra/Alfredo Simonetti rec. 1949
Recondita armonia: E lucevan le stelle
Jussi Björling, Swedish Radio Orchestra/Nils Grevillius rec. 1950
Love duet: Vissi d’arte
Ljuba Welitsch, Richard Tucker, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Max Rudolf rec. 1950
La Fanciulla del West
Ch’ella mi creda
Jussi Björling, Stockholm Royal Opera Orchestra/Nils Grevillius rec. 1937
O mio babbino caro
Bidù Sayao, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Pietro Cimara rec. 1947
Signore, ascolta: Tu che di gel sei cinta
Maria Callas, Philharmonia Orchestra/Tullio Serafin rec. 1954
Jussi Björling, orchestra/Nils Grevillius rec. 1944