- The Theatrical Magic of Giacomo Puccini [Recommended Recordings]
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28 October, 2012
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Giacomo Puccini
Recommended Recordings

"Inspiration is an awakening, a quickening of all man's faculties, and it is manifested in all high artistic achievements."

La Bohème
(Jussi Björling, Fernando Corena, et al; RCA Victor Chorus, RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra; Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor)
Every so often in the recording industry, there's a miracle, and this is one of them. This 1956 recording was organized quickly in New York, not on the heels of a stage performance and not even with a noted orchestra. All the right singers were in town at the same time--some popping in to sing a few bars before heading for the airport--and the result is the single greatest recording of this oft-recorded opera. The leads--Victoria de Los Angeles and Jussi Björling--would make it special in any case. But Robert Merrill is excellent and Lucine Amara is a light-voiced, French-sounding, ultra-stylish Musetta. This is also the only full-length Puccini recording by the great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. A classic. (review by David Patrick Stearns)

Madama Butterfly
(Mirella Freni, Siegfried Rudolf Frese, et al; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna State Opera Chorus; Herbert von Karajan, conductor)
Since Madama Butterfly has more stage time than other sopranos, it is imperative that the singing actress captures extensive dramatic variety in addition to singing with exquisite tone and an affinity to Puccini. Mirella Freni, one of the greatest recorded Butterfly's of all time, succeeds at these demands with vocal sensitivity and eloquence. She is assisted by Karajan's superb, symphonic conducting, crisply and poignantly realizing all of Puccini's vast moods; Ludwig's urgent, loving and tenderly sung Suzuki; and Pavarotti's endearing and almost likeable Pinkerton. In addition, the Pavarotti-Freni duets are nectars of the gods. Get out the tissues and indulge. (review by Barbara Eisner Bayer)

Puccini: Il Trittico
(Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, et al.; London Symphony Orchestra; Antonio Pappano, conductor)
The three one-act operas that Puccini gathered into "Il Trittico" ("The Triptych") are remarkably diverse in style and spirit: there's the tight melodrama of "Il Tabarro" versus the comic high jinks of the Dante (yes, Dante) based "Gianni Schicchi." But uniting this highly recommended set is a superb quality of performance throughout. These operas are essential listening for Puccini lovers.

Puccini: Manon Lescaut
(Gloria Banditelli, Marco Berti, et al.; Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus, Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, conductor)
It's odd how often Puccini lovers have been known to pass over "Manon Lescaut," the composer's first real masterpiece--and a work of stunning musico-dramatic invention. However well-known individual arias from the opera might be, "Manon" needs to be heard in its full theatrical context, and it's the perfect vehicle for Jose Cura's dark, yearning tenor. This new recording comes from an exciting live performance given in June 1998 at La Scala under Riccardo Muti.

Puccini: Messa di Gloria
(Roberto Alagna, Thomas Hampson; Antonio Pappano, conductor)
Here's another collaboration by two of today's leading Puccinians (conductor Antonio Pappano and tenor Roberto Alagna), with a focus on youthful non-operatic works by the composer. The centerpiece is the ambitious Mesa di Gloria, which features many notable passages for the vocal soloists.

Tosca (Callas Edition)
(Franco Calabrese, Maria Callas, et al; Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus, Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra; Victor De Sabata, conductor)
Little can be added to what's been written about this landmark recording, except that Walter Legge's 1953 mono production yields nothing to modern Tosca recordings for vivacity and theatrical impact--especially Maria Callas's. The miraculous Victor de Sabata conjures up a vibrant, inspiring orchestral canvas that enables Callas and her stellar cohorts to work their magic. Tito Gobbi and Callas spur each other on to heights in which the characters take over from the singers in the listener's mind. Giuseppe Di Stefano is on his best behavior, and in fresher voice than on his fine Leontyne Price-Herbert von Karajan remake. On this set, EMI includes texts, translations, and notes that discuss this recording in the context of Callas's mercurial career. (review by Jed Distler)

(Montserrat Caballé, Nicolai Ghiaurov, et al; John Alldis Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, et al; Zubin Mehta, conductor)
Joan Sutherland is not usually considered a Puccini singer, and in fact she sang the role of Turandot only in the recording studio. But for that assignment she had exactly what was needed: a voice that seemed to have no upper limits and a personality that concealed vulnerability under an air of icy detachment. She also had an ideal set of colleagues, notably Luciano Pavarotti, whose "Nessun dorma" has become practically his signature tune. (review by Joe McLellan)


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