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Friday, January 8, 2010

Box Set Review: Puccini: The Operas


This doorstop box set surveys EMI Classics' efforts to record almost every opera written by Puccini. Although some of these recordings are not top-flight or essential, the budget price alone and the overall quality of the contents make this a must for the serious opera collector.


The set includes re-issues of two major performances by Birgit Nilsson. First: the 1965 Turandot where she squares off with tenor Franco Corelli. This is not the greatest recording of the opera in terms of atmosphere and orchestral color, but the singing is white-hot, especially when you add Renata Scotto as Líu. Second: a 1958 recording of La Fanciulla del West. Minnie is a treacherous role. It requires a lot of power, has many tricky passages and worst of all, she doesn't get an aria. However, Nilsson saddles up and charges into the thick of it, and is backed by a solid (if not first-rate) La Scala cast.

Next, the "other" Maria Callas Tosca made in 1965 when the singer was more svelte but starting her vocal decline. Teamed with Carlo Bergonzi and Tito Gobbi, La Callas gives a more over-the-top, hysterical performance in the title role, yet sings the best "Vissi d'arte" in the catalogue. Carlo Bergonzi is everything a tenor should be ("E lucevan la stelle" is heartbreaking) and Gobbi's snarling Scarpia is always welcome. The sound effects are good too, if no match for the Decca set starring Leontyne Price conducted by Karajan and produced by John Culshaw.


"Everything Else" is a strong bag of recordings indeed. The Il Trittico is simply awesome, pairing the classic 1958 Tito Gobbi recording of Gianni Schicchi with worthy 1996 recordings of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica made by Antonio Pappano. The Alagnas show up (briefly) in Il Tabarro as the offstage lovers, and their recording of La Rondine is also included. Solid performances of Manon Lescaut (featuring Caballé), La Bohéme (with Freni and Nicolai Gedda) and Butterfly (with Björling and de Los Angeles) complete the lineup.

However, this set does not contain the Big Three EMI Puccini recordings:
  • 1966 Madama Butterfly conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, with Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Scotto
  • 1953 Tosca conducted by Victor de Sabata, with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano.
  • 1956  La Bohéme conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, with Jussi Björling and Victoria de Los Angeles
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.