La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Review of Puccini 150

The Best of Puccini on Record
Joseph So


This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Giacomo Puccini (1858-2008). Throughout Italy but particularly in Lucca and Torre del Lago, special performances, exhibitions, screenings, lectures and academic conferences will mark the occasion. Here in Canada, XXI-21Records, in partnership with La Scena Musicale, is issuing a 2-CD set of some of the greatest Puccini recordings ever made. I just spent a day listening to the gems contained in this release – what a trip down memory lane! These are recordings of my youth, many of which I have in my old LP collection, with tracks so worn out that they are practically unplayable. It is great to have the best bits now put together on two discs, which will go straight into my car CD player. There are many memorable moments on the discs. Here are some of my favourites, my personal desert-island selections, arranged by opera:

La bohème

The 1956 RCA recording with Sir Thomas Beecham at the podium is hard to beat – the gentle and tragic Mimi of Victoria de los Angeles tugs at the heart strings while the clarion tones of Jussi Bjoerling as Rodolfo can’t be surpassed, pace Luciano Pavarotti. But I’ll always have a soft spot for Renata Tebaldi in the 1959 Decca recording under the great Tullio Serafin. This was one of the first opera recordings I bought, and it remains one of my favourites. Tebaldi’s Mimi isn’t girlish, but the sheer beauty of her sound takes your breath away. The Act 3 “ Addio, senza rancor” is well captured here.


The generous, 30+ minutes comes from the legendary Callas and di Stefano Tosca on EMI (1953), conducted by Victor de Sabata. It caught both artists at their absolute peak – Callas never sounded better, with rock solid intonation and spitfire dramatic instinct. Giuseppe di Stefano is equally impressive, singing with great beauty of tone and technical ease. With the wonderful Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, this is a Tosca for the ages.

Manon Lescaut

Here we have the much-underrated 1954 Decca recording, featuring a youthful Tebaldi in resplendent voice – her “In quelle trine morbide” is exquisite. Partnering her is Mario del Monaco at his stentorian best, not exactly subtle but few tenors can touch him when it comes to squillo!

Madama Butterfly

The Callas and Tebaldi recordings chosen here allow a direct comparison of the two divas. Tebaldi’s Cio-Cio San is a tad mature – one never gets the sense that she is really Butterfly, but is rather an Italian spinto soprano impersonating a geisha. But with such opulent tone, I won’t quibble over characterization. Callas keeps her fiery temperament in check here, and her Butterfly is quite moving. Partnering the ladies as Pinkerton are two excellent tenors caught in their respective primes – Carlo Bergonzi and Nicolai Gedda. I wouldn’t want to do without either one.

La fanciulla del West

I actually saw Tebaldi in this opera at the Metropolitan in 1970, when her voice was past its prime. But here we have her twelve years earlier, in great form as a knock-‘em-dead Minnie, in the 1958 Decca recording. Minnie doesn’t have any show-stopping arias, but Tebaldi brings off this Act 1 arioso “Laggiù nel soledad” with purity of tone and a firm high C, something she no longer possessed in 1970. The Dick Johnson is Mario del Monaco, who sang with beauty of tone and surprising sensitivity in “Ch’ella mi creda.”


If there’s one regrettable omission on this set, it is the absence of Birgit Nilsson, the reigning Turandot of mid 20th century. In her place we have German soprano Inge Borkh on the 1955 Decca recording. Borkh is better known in German opera and she was overshadowed by Nilsson, but her Turandot here is a revelation. Her “In questa Reggia” is good, so good in fact that any opera house today would be thrilled to have her! On this recording we have the added bonus of Tebaldi as Liu, a role she never sang on stage. She contributes a lovely “Signor, ascolta!” Of the three Calafs represented – di Stefano, del Monaco, and Bjoerling, I prefer Bjoerling for his elegance and plangent tone.

Bonus Tracks

For me, this is the most fascinating part of the set, with eight hard-to-find arias by famous singers of the past. Brazilian soubrette Bidù Sayao is a delicious Lauretta in “O mio babbino caro” under the baton of Eric Leinsdorf, recorded in New York in 1947. The great Beniamino Gigli sings a short excerpt, “O dolci mani” from Act 3 Tosca with his trademark honeyed tone. Two more sopranos offer a beautiful if unidiomatic “Si, mi chiamano Mimi”. Ina Souez has a nice soubrette sound, but she doesn’t have the facility with parlando, and she sings with little portamento. The legendary Maria Cebotari’s version is better, but the aria sounds very strange in German. The same can be said about Joan Hammond’s “Senza mamma”, translated into English as “Dying thus without a mother’s blessing.” The voice is lovely, but her diction is so indistinct that she could have been singing in Mongolian and we wouldn’t know. The great French tenor Georges Thill sings a stylish “Nessun dorma.” Perhaps the most curious selection is Enrico Caruso singing “Vecchia zimarra”, Colline’s Act 4 “Coat Song”, recorded by RCA Victor in 1916. Caruso darkens his voice here, but you can tell he can manage the baritone tessitura though not basso. Legend has it that once in a performance of La bohème, the Colline lost his voice and Caruso turned his back to the audience and sang the two-minute aria! He went on to make this recording, but later asked to have it destroyed. It is our great good fortune that a copy of it survived.

Overall this is a thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable release, and a great addition to any collection of Puccini recordings.

Part of the proceeds from the sale of this recording goes to fund the mission of the charity La Scène musicale, to promote music and the arts.



CD: $20 / each + applicable taxes + postage
  • $7 Canada
  • $9 US
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