Sunday Classics: If we could measure souls, is there one larger or more cherishable than that of Puccini's Girl of the Golden West?
The grieving relatives of the just-deceased Buoso Donati learn they have a new worry in the opening scene of Gianni Schicchi, the joyous romp Puccini and librettist Giovacchino Forzano created out of the wispiest mention in Dante's Inferno. In this Metropolitan Opera performance from April 28, 2007, staged by Jack O'Brien and conducted (quite adequately!) by James Levine, tenor Massimo Giordano is young Rinuccio, mezzo Stephanie Blythe is the formidable matriarch Zita, and bass Donato di Stefano is the clan elder, Simone.
"There isn't, in the whole world, a sinner to whom a path to redemption isn't open. Let each of you keep within you this supreme truth of love."
-- Minnie, proprietor of the Polka Saloon, to the California
Gold Rush miners for whom she is conducting a Bible class,
in Act I of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West
Gold Rush miners for whom she is conducting a Bible class,
in Act I of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West
Not long ago I put on an old Met broadcast performance of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (his operatic adaptation of the play The Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco, who had provided the source material for Puccini's previous opera, Madama Butterfly), and within seconds I was startled to realize I had tears in my eyes.
Now the brief orchestral introduction to Fanciulla (it lasts, on average, maybe a minute and 10 seconds) isn't sad, not in the least. It is mostly a glorious explosion of surging energy. You can hear the last 26 seconds in a promotional video for Covent Garden's 2006 performances. I decided that those 26 seconds didn't justify subjecting you to the remaining three and a half minutes of twaddle, and in any event it's really the surge of the very opening, and the bit that follows immediately, that I wanted you to hear. The soaring melody, carved out of a harmonically surprising whole-tone scale, is the one with which Minnie imparts to her miner Bible students the personal view of human redeemability I've quoted above.
If we were going to try to talk seriously about Puccini's operas, those might be the first things I would want you to hear: that soaring opening, and then Minnie's Bible reading (from Psalm 51), and its lesson of the "supreme truth of love," which sends her soaring into the soprano's upper range, a remarkable effect from the kind of heavyweight voice for which the role is written -- a "dramatic soprano," as opposed to the lighter-weight "lyric soprano" (like Mimi, the heroine of Puccini's La Boheme).
Another reason to start out with that rousing Fanciulla curtain-raiser is that the simplest measure of the scale of Puccini's genius may be those amazing orchestral introductions. Someday I would love to be able to string together the openings of Manon Lescaut (1893), La Boheme (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), Fanciulla (1910), La Rondine (1917), Gianni Schicchi (1918), and Turandot (left unfinished at the composer's death in 1924) -- the whole of Puccini's mature operatic output with the exception of two of the three one-act operas that make up the 1918 trilogy titled, appropriately, Il Trittico.
Puccini was following Verdi in his final masterpieces, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), in eliminating any formal overture or even shorter prelude, instead plunging the audience into the action with just a brief orchestral scene-setting. Puccini made an art form of these orchestral introductions. His not only grab the audience's attention and draw us into the action but are in themselves astonishing feats of musical imagination, no two of which resemble each other. (We might also want to throw in the introductions to many of the operas' later acts as well.) The operas don't bear much musical resemblance to each other either, for that matter. Each has its own sound world.
Instead of the opening of Fanciulla, what we have at the top of this post is the first 10 minutes of Puccini's comic masterpiece Gianni Schicchi, which has tended to overshadow its Trittico mates, Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica. The ebullient orchestral introduction quickly gives way to the grieving of the relatives assembled in the bedroom where the late Buoso Donati, a prosperous Florentine, lies not yet cold. Already we can hear that there's something off about the grieving, not least that Puccini has the accents falling consistently smack in the middle of musical bars.
Inevitably the over-the-top, "can you top this?"-type grieving gives way to gossiping. It seems there's a rumor that Buoso wrote a new will before he died. Since the relatives' impending inheritance is of considerably greater interest to them than poor Buoso's corporeal departure, it quickly becomes the only topic of conversation, striking terror in the hearts of those who haven't heard the rumor: It's said that their "poor Buoso" left his most prized possessions to the monks.
Adjusting quickly, the relatives decide their only hope is if the new will is still in this very room, rather than in a lawyer's hands. A giddy musical scramble breaks out as they tear the joint apart. After a few false leads, it is -- as luck, romance, and theatrical convenience would have it -- the dashing young nephew Rinuccio who finds it.
Rinuccio has a problem more serious than a mere inheritance. Of course, he's in love -- madly and hopelessly, hopelessly because his beloved Lauretta is the daughter of the socially unworthy Gianni Schicchi, a man hopelessly beneath the old-line middle-class Donatis. Why, the very nickname "Gianni," a diminutive of Giovanni -- what kind of name is that for a grownup? To Zita, there is no question of a Donati marrying the daughter of this peasant, this man from (shudder!) the country, this member of (gadzooks!) "the new class."
Rinuccio's attempt to use the found will as leverage fails when, instead of assuring their shared prosperity, it confirms the dreadful rumors. As Zita observes, "Who would ever have said that when Buoso went to the cemetery there would be crying for real?" The last thing she wants to hear about is Gianni Schicchi or his daughter, which makes for a singularly awkward moment when the Schicchis show up, having been summoned by Rinuccio, who believes there's one and only one person who can find a way out for them.
Schicchi is so outraged by La Vecchia's abusive behavior that he is all set to take the despairing Lauretta home when Rinuccio -- addressing him as "Signor Giovanni"! -- begs him to stay a moment, to try to save them. Surely, he says, Schicchi, won't fail to come up with "a momentous idea, a discovery, a remedy, a means, an expedient." But Schicchi is so apoplectic now that he spits out:
"A pro di quella gente?
Niente! Niente! Niente!"
("For those people?
Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!")
Is this the world's favorite aria?
The thrice-hammered "Niente!" is echoed by the orchestra, which then, in the space of a single bar, undergoes one of the most miraculous -- and hilarious -- transformations in all of music, as the despairing Lauretta drops to her knees and goes to work on her father:
"O mio babbino caro" has of course become one of the most familiar and recognizable of all opera arias, often (or especially) to people who don't know any other opera arias. In part this is because it's so beautiful; in part it's because its emotional appeal is so strong and direct; and in part it's because the aria isn't nearly as difficult to sing as one would expect from the wallop it delivers, as witness the fact that I had to wade through some 45 pages of YouTube clips -- sung not only by all the expectable operatic sopranos but by, apparently, everyone of vaguely female persuasion between the ages of about 7 and 70 who has ever taken a singing lesson, and probably quite a few who haven't -- in a desperate and ultimately futile effort to find a suitable one.
I did find a dreary performance, with Portuguese subtitles, in which this scene appears at the end of an eight-minute clip, and another too-extended clip of an even drearier performance, in English, with piano accompaniment. I couldn't do that to Puccini, or to you. I gave it a shot, though, because the aria is so fundamentally misunderstood as to nearly miss the point, not to mention the true compositional mastery on display here.
"O mio babbino caro" is not about "showing emotions." Real art is never about "showing emotions" -- only whorish crap art is. (Worse still, in performance it usually slides into showing off emotions.) What's happening here is as old and as human as fathers and daughters: a daughter in real pain, yes, but more important, a daughter who knows how to pull out all the stops, to push all the buttons (choose your metaphor), to get what she wants from her dear daddy. It's possible, I suppose that in this exact moment Lauretta thinks she might throw herself off the Ponte Vecchio into the River Arno. I think it's more likely, or at any rate more important, that she means to communicate that she's really, really unhappy, and that she knows the effect the image of her jumping in the river will have on poor Papa.
I finally settled reluctantly for this clip from the 1981 Met Trittico telecast, when Renata Scotto undertook the feat of singing all three soprano roles -- not something the composer is ever likely to have contemplated, since they're written for quite different kinds of voices. By this stage in her career Scotto's voice was substantially ravaged, and how that happened is one of those chicken-and-egg deals: Was the voice ruined by her move into "spinto"-weight (i.e., between "dramatic"- and "lyric"-weight) repertory, or did she make that move because the voice had already lost its freshness and evenness of range as a lyric soprano? (My guess is mostly the latter, leaving her little to lose by cranking it up.) This means that Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, the lightest of the three Trittico roles, was actually the heaviest going for her, and this certainly isn't a pretty performance, all the more awkward when you consider the piece's really rather low degree of difficulty.
So why am I offering this performance? Because it at least includes Lauretta's dear daddy, who is after all the entire point of the piece, with at least some attempt by Lauretta to change his mind, to get him to do something about the Donati family mess. Scotto was once a pretty decent operatic actress of an admittedly conventional sort; here's where a really understanding stage director might have come in handy. (By the way, that's the distinguished veteran baritone Gabriel Bacquier seen but unfortunately not heard as Gianni Schicchi.)
Add a few seconds here, a few seconds there
This is especially inexcusable for clip-posters who have posted clips of "O mio babbino caro" which come from performances of the complete opera. I think death may actually be too light a penalty, just as Sheriff Jack Rance argues in Act I of Fanciulla when the miner Sid is caught cheating at cards. The other miners all want to string the hapless fellow up, but in a deliciously mordent little out-of-nowhere arioso, the sheriff meditates on death:
"What is death? What is death?
A blow in the dark and good night!"
Rance proposes a better punishment. He asks for the card with which Sid had been caught cheating, and he pins it over Sid's heart, "as if he's wearing a flower."
"He won't tamper with the cards anymore.
This is his sign. If he were to dare
take it off, string him up."
In the case of the Scotto clip, if the poster had started about 13 seconds earlier, the clip could have included Schicchi's enraged "A pro di quella gente? Niente! Niente! Niente!" And if it had run just a few seconds beyond the aria applause, it would have shown the completion of the transformation of Schicchi from a raging lion to a situational mouse. Oh, it's clear that he still wants with every fiber of his being to get the hell out of this house with these monstrous people, but what the hell can he do? He's reduced to growling, in the lower reaches of his voice, "Give me the will."
If the performers do it Puccini's way, it's not going to be less moving. It's actually going to be more moving, in fact, because it will be about real human behavior. Every audience member can easily identify with the desperate lengths of manipulation to which a teenager in love will resort. But it can also be hilarious, because it's such a brilliant depiction of such a basic human situation: how a loving daughter gets what she wants from a doting father.
Why can't we take Fanciulla seriously?
Ever since Gianni Schicchi had its premiere -- at the Met, in fact, like Fanciulla del West -- audiences have been astonished by Puccini's deft hand at comedy. There is, in fact, a certain amount of intentionally comic interaction among the miners in Fanciulla, but as generally happens with Puccini, that too is cheapened by a lack of respect for the composer's artistic seriousness. In recent decades Fanciulla has come to be performed a lot more often than it used to be, but there has always been an unfortunate tendency to treat it as kitsch art, unintentional self-parody, and I think that has only increased. Oh right! Sweet, innocent Minnie running a saloon for all the rough, tough Italian-crooning miners in the wilds of Gold Rush territory, reading them the Bible! What a hoot!
But it's not such a hoot if you actually look at the situation. When I listened to that old Met broadcast of Fanciulla and found myself tearing up during the orchestral introduction, I realized it's because I really do love Minnie. I don't see how it's possible for anyone not to who has taken the time to appreciate the character that Puccini has created from the materials supplied him by playwright Belasco and the librettists, Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini.
In the opera we're actually given a great deal of detail about Minnie's life, past and present (Act II is actually set in the "cabin halfway up the mountain" she has mentioned in Act I), and more important, how she relates to all that reality. In this remote setting, living her solitary existence, our Minnie -- who, remember, has never kised a man, but whose deepest belief is the power of love to redeem even the most hopeless sinner -- is able, with her still more exotic combination of toughness and femininity, to control the ragtag group of miners, all of them desperately lonely exiles hoping not so much to strike it rich as to eke out a better living than they might have back home, wherever that was.
And then, as Minnie opens up to the handsome stranger Dick Johnson (who turns out to be a man she had once met "on the way that leads to Monterey," where he asked her to go pick berries with him; she was clearly tempted -- the moment is cleary one of her happiest memories -- but she didn't), we discover that there is perhaps one deeper belief than the one about love, and that's her innermost feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness.
Puccini created Puccini's way -- d'oh!
In an essay in the booklet that accompanies EMI's new 17-CD compendium of the 10 mature operas of Puccini (see below), Stephen Jay-Taylor, practicing the now well-established critical art of sneering at and patronizing Puccini, makes reference to --
the composer's lifelong aversion to the expansive apparatus of grand opera. Aida may have been his career inspiration, and Parsifal a life-long passion, but Puccini would never attempt the scale or structure of either. For him, it was all about 'great sufferings in little souls', a preoccupation that audiences with a soft, sentimental strain have always found perfectly attuned to their tastes.
This is so stupid that one hardly knows where to begin, and there's hardly any point bothering, because I doubt that Mr. Jay-Taylor would be any less stupid writing about Aida or Parsifal. I assume the "great sufferings in little souls" business is something Puccini himself said, but surely we can allow for self-deprecating modesty. Is it really possible for Mr. J-T not to see that souls don't come any larger than Minnie's, or more cherishable?
The notion that Puccini should have written Verdi's or Wagner's operas is as preposterous as Mr. J-T's brilliant conclusion that Puccini adopted Wagner's system of leitmotifs but used them incorrectly! No, Stevie, Puccini never adopted Wagner's system of leitmotifs, any more than he adopted Debussy's ideas of whole-tone-inclusive harmonies. To the extent that he added tools to his arsenal, he used them his own way. One of the most crucial and most difficult aspects of being a creative artist is knowing where your creativity lies, what feeds it, and how it's best expressed.
As a matter of fact, of course, Verdi didn't actually want to write Aida -- and when was the last time anyone gave any consideration to souls in Aida? (Oh, they're there. You'd just hardly ever guess it from performances.) Same thing with Parsifal, which in fact includes one character with a soul as big as Minnie's: Gurnemanz. But I wonder if Stevie has a clue about Gurnemanz's soul. Not many commentators do.
In the course of Fanciulla, Minnie's outsize soul will take a terrible beating, when she discovers that her Mr. Johnson, with whom she has now fallen in love (and at the very least been kissed) is in fact the dangerous outlaw gang leader Ramerrez whom we heard so much about in Act I. Eventually pure, innocent Minnie will engage in extraordinary behavior -- cheating at cards to save her outlaw lover. But even more remarkably, the criminal will be transformed by her love for him. The best-known music in Fanciulla is the quite brief aria "Ch'ella mi creda," in which Ramerrez, about to be hanged, makes one request: that Minnie be told he is "free and far away." (Here is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous performance by Jussi Bjoerling, presumably his 1959 commercial recording.)
Paying the price for popularity?
I suppose it's true that many listeners listen to Puccini's music with an ear to its sentimentality, or what can be softened to sentimentality. And this is perhaps, in an odd way, the composer's fault, in that I think he was so desperate to communicate that he made his operas to a certain extent "performer-proof" -- so strong in their intent that even the most dunderheaded performers can't mess them up. (Or critics?) But that doesn't mean these works have been truly explored, or their possibilities realized.
I think it's also to a large degree the problem we talked about in connection with Tcaikovsky: an overwhelming resentment on the part of the "serious" critical establishment of the sheer popularity of the music, the strength of the bond it establishes with listeners without that establishment's mediation.
Would-be artists, and a desperately poor young woman
There's nothing simple about Puccini's art, though. I went through the experience of loving, then dismissing as sentimental slush, and then once again loving La Boheme. Now I think of Act III, one of the portions of the piece that troubled me most and longest, that seemed the most "sentimental," and wonder how I could have missed all that's really going on. To pick only one element: There is Mimi's startled discovery, when she overhears her estranged boyfriend Rodolfo explain that, contrary to what he allows everyone to think, what has driven him away from her isn't irrational jealousy. Cards on the table, he explains to his best friend his terror at how close she is to dying.
Mimi isn't like the other characters in the opera, the middle-class "Bohemians" who play at being poor as they play at being poets, painters, philosophers, and so on. As the Australian director Baz Luhrman pointed out in connection with his extremely interesting staging of the opera (well worth a look; it's on DVD -- by casting attractive young people who can sing and act, more or less, he generates real erotic force, which I'll bet Puccini would have loved), Mimi is just plain poor. She's not a would-be artist, she's a seamstress. Who's been so sick for so long (and her tuberculosis is clearly worsened by the conditions her poverty forces her to live in) that she's used to being sick. She simply struggles day by day through her deadly illness. Beyond that, she may be in denial -- it's not as if she could afford to do anything about it anyway. It's not until she hears Rodolfo say it that she understands how sick she is.
It takes two participants to make a duet
Or, as an example of the remarkable agility with which Puccini invented and reinvented forms to suit dramatic needs, I think of the great Act I love duet of Tosca. Through the whole first part of the duet, it really isn't one. Both the painter Cavaradossi and the diva Tosca are so preoccupied, and so differently preoccupied (he with his sudden, unexpected need to hide Cesare Angelotti, the fugitive consul of the destroyed Roman republic, from the punishing pursuit of the relentless and vindictive police chief, Baron Scarpia; she with her uncontrollable jealousy, which drives her to the unshakable conclusion that Mario has been entertaining a woman), that at first the duet happens only in the orchestra.
Then Tosca, unable to control those jealous impulses (a bit of Minnie-like personal insecurity?), fixes on the eyes in Cavaradossi's painting of the Marchese Attavanti. He looks in her eyes, and we have that astonishing moment when we hope our tenor has a big enough and juicy enough voice to really take control of the situation and the music, with one of the most passionately compelling musical phrases ever imagined, for the line, "What eye in the world can stand comparison with your ardent black eye?" (And say, what makes this melody so mesmerizing? All it is, really, is upward and downward scale segments. Unless you happened to be Puccini.)
I really wish we could talk about some of those things. But my goodness, look how much space we've already consumed, and as you'll see, we still have another whole work unit to get through.
"PUCCINI: THE OPERAS"
EMI has gathered the ten operas from Manon Lescaut through Turandot in a modestly priced 17-CD box.
MANON LESCAUT. Montserrat Caballe (s), Manon; Placido Dominto (t), des Grieux; Vicente Sardinero (b), Lescaut; New Philharmonia Orchestra., Bruno Bartoletti, cond. (1971)
LA BOHEME. Mirella Freni (s), Mimi; Mariella Adani (s), Musetta; Nicolai Gedda (t), Rodolfo; Mario Sereni (b), Marcello; Mario Basiola Jr. (b), Schaunard; Ferruccio Mazzoli (bs), Colline; Carlo Badioli (bs), Benoit; Rome Opera, Thomas Schippers, cond. (1962-63)
TOSCA. Maria Callas (s), Tosca; Carlo Bergonzi (t), Cavaradossi; Renato Ercolani (t), Spoletta; Tito Gobbi (b), Scarpia; Giorgio Tadeo (bs), Sacristan; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, Georges Pretre, cond. (1964-65)
MADAMA BUTTERFLY. Victoria de los Angeles (s), Cio-Cio-San; Miriam Pirazzini (ms), Suzuki; Jussi Bjoerling (t), Pinkerton; Piero de Palma (t), Goro; Mario Sereni (b), Sharpless; Rome Opera, Gabriele Santini, cond. (1959)
LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST. Birgit Nilsson (s), Minnie; Joao Gibin (t), Dick Johnson; Andrea Mongelli (b), Jack Rance; Nicola Zaccaria (bs), Jake Wallace; Teatro alla Scala, Lovro von Matacic, cond. (1958)
LA RONDINE. Angela Gheorghiu (s), Magda; Inva Mula (s), Lisette; Roberto Alagna (t), Ruggero; William Matteuzzi (t), Prunier; Alberto Rinaldi (b), Rambaldo; London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano, cond. (1996)
IL TRITTICO --
IL TABARRO. Maria Guleghina (s), Giorgetta; Neil Shicoff (t), Luigi; Carlo Guelfi (b), Michele; London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano, cond. (1997)
SUOR ANGELICA. Cristina Gallardo-Domas (s), Angelica; Bernadette Manca di Nissa (ms), the Princess Aunt; Philharmonia Orchestra, Antonio Pappano, cond. (1997)
GIANNI SCHICCHI. Victoria de los Angeles (s), Lauretta; Carlo del Monte (t), Rinuccio; Tito Gobbi (b), Gianni Schicchi; Rome Opera, Gabriele Santini, cond. (1958)
TURANDOT. Birgit Nilsson (s), Turandot; Renata Scotto (s), Liu; Franco Corelli (t), Calaf; Guido Mazzini (b), Ping; Bonaldo Giaiotti (bs), Timur; Rome Opera, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. (1965)
The sopranos certainly aren't chopped liver: the young Freni perfectly cast as Mimi in Boheme; Callas, at the other end of her career, in one of her most celebrated roles, Tosca; de los Angeles as Butterfly and Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, Nilsson as Minnie and Turandot; Caballe as Manon Lescaut, Scotto as Liu in Turandot.
Among the tenors we have immortal performances by Bjoerling as Pinkerton in Butterfly and Corelli as Calaf in Turandot, plus Domingo as des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, Gedda as Rodolfo in Boheme, and Bergonzi as Cavaradossi in Tosca.
On the baritone front, we have Gobbi in his most famous role, arguably the nastiest villain in opera, Scarpia in Tosca, as well as the wily but lovable Gianni Schicchi; Mario Sereni as Marcello in Boheme and an especially solid Sharpless in Butterfly; and the lesser-known but sturdy Andrea Mongelli as Jack Rance (unfortunately with the mordent arioso musing on death snipped out).
For fans of the relatively new, we have Gheorghiu and Alagna in La Rondine (and doing cameos as the Two Lovers in Il Tabarro), and Guleghina and Shicoff as the doomed lovers in Il Tabarro.
I'm not saying that all these castings work out equally well, but there are some classic performances here in addition to Bjoerling's and Corelli's. Nilsson was Corelli's partner in many a Turandot that lives in the memory of anyone lucky enough to have heard one, and she has a fairly good time as Minnie too. Mimi was long a signature role for Freni, and if hers isn't strikingly individual, her interpretive strength was always her plain-spoken sincerity.
The conducting tends to the "honorably idiomatic," with conductors like Santini, Molinari-Pradelli, and Bartoletti, rather than original or revelatory. There's one real standout performance: von Matacic's galvanic Fanciulla, which has the additional advantage of Italy's best orchestra and chorus by far, those of La Scala. I would also put in a good word for Schippers' well-controlled yet affecting Boheme, and for Pretre's Tosca as well, not always what I would call "idiomatic," but generally interestingly thought out.
You'll find some comparative notes on these performances in the quick discographic survey below. The technical work seems adequate, and the booklet contains complete discographic information. There are no printed librettos, of course, just the booklet essay by our pal Stevie Jay-Taylor. It's fine as far as factual information is concerned, and there's a lot of that, but beyond that, well, you know.
THE COMPLETE PUCCINI OPERAS ON 20 CDs
Note: Sony BMG Classics has issued a set of the complete Puccini operas -- yes, including even the early, not very interesting Le Villi and Edgar -- on 20 CDs, drawing on both the Sony/CBS and BMG/RCA catalogs. It's not as attractively priced, and more importantly, for the most part the performances are to my taste less successful. But check out the casts. You may have your own preferences.
A QUICK RUNDOWN OF PUCCINI RECOMMENDATIONS
There are no real clinkers in the EMI set, and most of these performances are solidly competitive in their respective fields. However, despite the convenience and attractive price, not everyone will want all this Puccini, at least not right out of the box. So let's do a quick survey, though with regrettably intermittent consideration of what's currently available, since I don't necessarily know what's currently available. I'm not sure anyone knows for sure what's currently available, "availability" having become more a metaphysical than a physical quality with the present-day record industry.
MANON LESCAUT. I suspect that the inherent difficulties of the piece have something to do with the fact that there's no simple recommendation; it's not always obvious how you would go about producing a great performance of it. I've just been listening to Decca's 1992 Met recording conducted by James Levine, with Freni and Luciano Pavarotti, and it's really not bad. I'm not sure it's a better performance than the EMI mono recording with Callas and di Stefano, but it certainly gives a better image of the piece's sound world, and Levine, who has generally seemed to me especially badly suited to the song-based world of Puccini, does quite okay here.
LA BOHEME. This EMI version continues to hold up well to the competition, but there are two Boheme recordings I consider really special: the mono EMI conducted with brilliant audaciousness by Sir Thomas Beecham, with a fine cast headed by de los Angeles and Bjoerling (Rodolfo was one of his signature roles, and I don't expect to hear it sung better); and a gorgeously idiomatic Decca one conducted by Tullio Serafin with another fine cast headed by Tebaldi and Bergonzi.
TOSCA. Even allowing for the deterioration of Callas's voice since the celebrated 1953 recording, and of Gobbi's as well, I think I actually prefer this stereo remake. While the French orchestra doesn't sound exactly right, everything in this performance has some sense of life, the element that somehow (oh, I know how -- it's spelled W-a-l-t-e-r L-e-g-g-e, as in the producer) got scrubbed out of the earlier one, whose cast -- Callas and di Stefano at much happier stages of their careers plus a younger Gobbi -- and conductor, the distinguished Victor de Sabata, should have produced a performance . . . well, as good as this one is all but universally reputed to be. That's not one of the many Tosca recordings I return to (I listen to this opera a lot), for their different strengths. Let's see, there's a lot to enjoy in the Decca version with the Vienna Philharmonic playing sumptuously under Herbert von Karajan, and with Leontyne Price in gorgeous voice and Giuseppe Taddei maybe my favorite Scarpia; and di Stefano, despite the bad things that crude handling had done to his voice by this time, understands how this music works.
MADAMA BUTTERFLY. I would hate to be without this version, but EMI did a later recording conducted with great songfulness as well as dramatic flair by Sir John Barbirolli, and with another strong cast: Scotto, Bergonzi, and Rolando Panerai. I'm also very fond of the Decca version with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, Serafin conducting, and the RCA version with Leontyne Price, Richard Tucker, and Philip Maero, Erich Leinsdorf conducting. (The RCA Living Stereo Butterfly CDs aren't as impressive-sounding as the Living Stereo Boheme and Turandot. At least in two-channel reproduction, the hybrid SACD version is a bit better, but the string sound still doesn't match that of the original Shaded Dog LPs.)
LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST. I'm pleased to have this strongly theatrical EMI version on CD, though the niggling little cuts are a nuisance, and the tenor is a problem -- Gibin had a voice with some real juice in there somewhere, and sometimes it breaks free, but often it doesn't. If I could having just one Fanciulla, it would be the Decca with Tebaldi (a performance of glorious generosity), Mario del Monaco, Cornell MacNeil, and lots of good people manning the large supporting cast, Franco Capuana conducting. But I would still want the EMI one to complement it.
LA RONDINE. In the absence of a clear pick, the EMI recording will do, though I don't think either Gheorghiu or Alagna is heard to best advantage. The recording I'm probably most likely to go to is the first stereo one, on RCA, with Anna Moffo, Daniele Barioni, and Mario Sereni, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli conducting (included in the Sony BMG box, by the way).
IL TRITTICO. I like the Gobbi/EMI Gianni Schicchi a lot, and I'm glad it was included in the EMI box, even if the Schicchi in EMI's Pappano-conducted Trittico (with Jose van Dam in the title role and the Alagnas as the young lovers) is the strongest performance in that set -- but then, Schicchi performances usually are the best performances in any Trittico. The Tabarro and Suor Angelica are certainly okay, though, and deserved inclusion over EMI's earlier versions, which were in mono and really not better performances. If I was shopping for a complete Trittico, and I could find it, I would go for the earlier Decca version, with Tebaldi as all three heroines; Mario del Monaco and Robert Merrill as Luigi and Michele in Tabarro; Giulietta Simionato as Suor Angelica's icily regal aunt; and Fernando Corena as Gianni Schicchi -- with Lamberto Gardelli conducting,
TURANDOT. If I could have only one Turandot, it would surely be the earlier Nilsson version on RCA, with the luxurious cast of Bjoerling as Calaf, Tebaldi as Liu (when else are we going to get to hear a voice of this fullness in this normally lightly cast role?), Giorgio Tozzi as Timur, and Sereni as Ping, Erich Leinsdorf conducting. The Living Stereo CD edition sounds fabulous. (That's what led me to buy the Living Stereo Boheme, which is also awfully good, and then the Butterfly, which I find disappointing.) There's also a hybrid SACD hybrid edition of the Turandot.)
THE "BASIC" PUCCINI
Of course everyone has individual preferences. For me the "basic" Puccini would be a Boheme and a Tosca, plus Gianni Schicchi and I think Turandot. Probably most people would include Butterfly ahead of Turandot. I wouldn't, but I'm just saying. (Though there's a lot of music in Butterfly that I love, I have problems with it. We could talk about that sometime.)
RECENT CLASSICAL MUSIC POSTS
While I work on creating a location for an archive list, you'll find a list at the end of last week's post on Vienna's Strauss family.