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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Il Tabarro (1918)
Giorgetta – Melody Moore (soprano)
Michele – Lester Lynch (baritone)
Luigi – Brian Jagde (tenor)
Frugola – Roxana Constantinescu (mezzo)
Tinca – Simeon Esper (tenor)
Talpa – Martin-Jan Nijhof (bass)
MDR Leipzig Radio Choir
Dresdner Philharmonie/Marek Janowski
Recorded in Kulturpalast Dresden, March 2019
PENTATONE PTC5186773 SACD [49:42]

In a good performance, I sometimes wonder whether Puccini ever wrote anything better than Il Tabarro. It’s a wonder of compressed tension, focusing the passion of Bohème, the power of Butterfly and the drama of Tosca into less than 50 minutes. It may not have the soaring arias or the powerful choruses of those operas, but it’s still a minor miracle and I love it dearly.

This is a perfectly fine performance, and if it was the only recording we had of it then we’d have cause to be pretty satisfied. As with the rest of Marek Janowski’s opera recordings on Pentatone, it benefits from excellent recorded sound, adding to the atmospheric tension that is so critical for this work, though the important offstage effects are a little anodyne, and the foghorn of the opening is most definitely a brass instrument. The singers are good throughout, particularly Melody Moore, whose soprano fits the tortured Giorgetta very well. Ripe at the top, she manages to let rip in her duet with Luigi in a way that lets us see the sensual woman beyond the frustrated wife, but she then retreats into herself in her duet with Michele to show the suffocating effect of their marriage.

It’s a strong portrayal, and the men are only slightly less impressive. Brian Jagde has both the grit and the sensuality needed to sing Luigi, managing a touch of elemental strength in his arioso about the misery of life, but then showing us a hint of danger when he threatens to make a jewel out of blood. Similarly, Lester Lynch draws Michele as a man past his prime but still worthy of our sympathy. He has a warm baritone but there is a sense of danger lurking just below the surface. It comes out in his final soliloquy, but not before he has given us a heartbreaking depiction of a man desperate to save his marriage, trying in vain to convince Giorgetta (and himself) that better times lie ahead.

The minor roles are all taken very characterfully, and the orchestral playing is very good, too, particularly from the sensational Dresden strings. If there’s a problem then it is with Janowski’s view of the piece. The setup and the opening unfold unfussily, but he drops the ball badly at the key moment when Giorgetta and Luigi find themselves along on the barge and plan their elopement. This is the moment where the tension really needs to ratchet up, albeit very subtly. However, Janowski takes the pizzicato theme in the basses far too quickly, ruining any sense of sinister build, before throwing it away by slowing up dramatically later; and the final climax doesn’t fare much better.

It’s a pity, though not a killer. What really does for this release is the competition. If you really want Tabarro on its own, without the other constituent parts of Il Triticco, then there isn’t much competition beyond Erich Leinsdorf’s recording with Domingo, Price and Leontyne Price, which is the very definition of melodrama.

However, why wouldn’t you want to spend just a few pounds more and get the finest performance of all, and with it the whole of Il Trittico into the bargain? I’m referring to Antonio Pappano’s red hot London Symphony Orchestra performance, easily the best Trittico on CD and, into the bargain, the finest Tabarro, too. Janowski’s singers are good, but always a little safe, never quite getting to the borderline of losing control. Pappano’s singers career over that line into the precipice, delivering a vocal performance that will make your hair stand on end, and the conductor’s control over the orchestra is electrifying, culminating in a searing performance of the final pages that will shake you to the core. Good as it is, Janowski’s performance never comes close to that. Case closed.

Simon Thompson

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