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--Standard Repertory--

By Giacomo Puccini

VIDEO: Cheryl Barker, David Hobson, Douglas, Lemke, Smith conducting, Australian Opera, 1993; PGD [Polygram] 071 276; A sincere, talented youthful cast sweeps the field, making Puccini's intimate story the heartbreaking picture of growing up that it was meant to be; doesn't try to be sentimental, just lets the music and the sheer, human helplessness of the characters (brilliantly portrayed in a risky but successfully updated production) carry the day; be warned, its very resolve not to be either prettified or melodramatic makes this overwhelmingly sincere presentation a three-handkerchief show! Given the abuses of some of the modernized, "with-it" productions that are out there and the formidable vocal competition of the fine AUDIO recordings itemized below, it is astonishing that this performance by unknowns may just delve that much deeper into the helplessness and pity of Puccini's work than any known AUDIO (or other VIDEO) recording has yet done! [G.R.]

AUDIO: A) EMI: Mirella Freni, Nicolai Gedda, Schippers conducting; a happy partnership of two musicians who combine opulent vocalism with fresh spontaneity and genuine commitment; Freni and Gedda, in their vivid realization of Puccini’s masterpiece, take their cue from Schippers’ uncommonly energized baton; despite a strictly average supporting cast, Schippers, Freni, and Gedda have left us a real milestone with this recording  [G.R.]; stereo

B-1) EMI: Licia Albanese, Beniamino Gigli, Berrettoni conducting; classic pairing of the foremost Mimi of her generation in her youthful prime opposite one of the greatest lirico voices of the twentieth century; though their musicianship does not match that of their counterparts in A, their fully comparable commitment to their roles is enhanced here by an accomplished ensemble far superior to A’s  [G.R.]; Fair Mono

B-2) RCA: Licia Albanese, Jan Peerce, Toscanini conducting; the raison d’etre for this performance is Toscanini, who conducted the world premiere under Puccini’s direct supervision (1896); “Maestro”’s presence at the podium gives this reading tremendous authority; his passion for this score and his galvanizing effect on everyone in the cast is palpable and worth the whole set (provided you don’t mind his audible humming along in places!); if anything, Albanese here surpasses her Mimi on B-1; even though a duly responsive top seems less of a piece now with the rest of the voice, it still remains easy and free, and there are warmer colors in the mid-range than before; true, all this results in the occasional hollowness on some “connective” tones, but the hollowness is not yet as noticeable here as it was later, and the dividends, both dramatic and musical, are considerable, yielding arguably the most apt interpretation of the role on disc; sadly, on repeated hearings, Peerce starts to wear on one; his atypically tense vocalism and the extra-musical grunts are disconcerting from such a reputable musician  [G.R.]; Fair Mono

B-3) EMI: Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Votto conducting; since I first heard this recording, Di Stefano for me has been -- and remains -- the finest Rodolfo on disc; no one else imparts so much youthfulness, so much vulnerability, so much sheer variety, so much vocal beauty to this role; his assumption is unique; he is in glorious voice; his interpretation made such an overwhelming impact on me that it proved necessary for me to rehear this performance quite recently before I properly appreciated Callas’s contribution as well; no, she is not one of nature’s Mimis, but her fine insight and musicianship weave their own spell, and she is in strong enough voice here to achieve all her interpretive aims  [G.R.]; Mono

C) EMI: Victoria De Los Angeles, Jussi Bjoerling, Beecham conducting; Beecham incorporates all the later refinements in the score that Puccini conveyed to him personally; unlike Callas, De Los Angeles is indeed one of nature’s Mimis, but Bjoerling, whose bewitching vocal colors are readily apparent here, nevertheless shows some constriction in his vocal production and was, in fact, not well at the time; this set is almost as handsomely cast in its supporting roles as any other set out there  [G.R.]; Mono

D) DECCA/LONDON: Renata Tebaldi, Giacinto Prandelli, Erede conducting; Though arguably the most consistently well sung set of all (superior in its consistency, if not its vocal peaks, to the Beecham), this lacks just that extra bit of vividness typical of its less generously endowed competition; some may find its comparative sobriety a refreshing change, but, having cut my eye teeth on this set, I was still transported by the subsequent revelation of the Di Stefano recording, B-3; the Di Stefano set spurred me to explore the other recordings listed above and showed me what was missing here; that said, it is a joy, to take just one example, to return here to Hilde Gueden, the Musetta, a genuine artist and musician with a diamond of a voice, who really sings her role, not as the seconda donna of the evening -- applying the usual knee-jerk, off-the-rack, off-pitch, unfocused “shcr-r-reaming mit shtick”! -- but as a three-dimensional character captured in music that requires just as alert a technique (if not more so!) and just as musically disciplined an approach as any of the more profound music given the two leads; her example seems to set the pace for much of the assured music-making throughout this performance [G.R.]; Mono

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