Puccini: Il trittico: Il tabarro; Suor Angelica; Gianni Schicchi

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COMPOSERS: Puccini
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Il trittico: Il tabarro; Suor Angelica; Gianni Schicchi
PERFORMER: Mirella Freni, Juan Pons, Giuseppe Giacomini, Piero de Palma, Elena Souliotis, Barbara Frittoli, Leo Nucci, Roberto AlagnaOrchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Bruno Bartoletti
CATALOGUE NO: 436 261-2 DDD
Mirella Freni is the first soprano to challenge Renata Tebaldi’s hat-trick of singing all three female leads in the very different panels of Puccini’s operatic triptych, although, truth to tell, she’s left it a little bit late. For whereas Tebaldi – aged 40 when Decca recorded its earlier set in 1962 – was still very much in her prime, Freni, at 56 when Decca returned to Florence to record the new set’s sessions in 1991, was undoubtedly past hers.

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It is ironic, too, that the younger soprano – potentially the Lauretta (in Gianni Schicchi) of one’s dreams 30 years ago, and possibly an ideal Suor Angelica in the Seventies – fares best with the dramatic verismo part of Giorgetta in Il tabarro, for which nature never intended her essentially lyrical voice.

Freni’s mature, fruity timbre and her resinous chest voice are put to potent use in Puccini’s steamy melodrama of adulterous passion on a Seine barge and she is given sterling support by the baritonal tenor of Giuseppe Giacomini as the stevedore Luigi – his best recorded performance to date – and Juan Pons as her jealous husband Michele.

The tragic central panel, Suor Angelica, finds Freni in effortful voice: no longer steady or beautiful at the top, nor vulnerable. The real disaster here, though, is the hauling out of semi-retirement of the former dramatic soprano Elena Souliotis, who sings the role of the Princess with tattered threads of a voice. The logic behind the casting seems to be that, if Freni suggests a 50-year-old, Souliotis sounds 20 years her senior, though she is in fact eight years younger.

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Freni’s ‘O mio babbino caro’ in Gianni Schicchi would pass muster in a celebrity concert, but her casting as Lauretta is batty when the Schicchi cast includes as Nella the delectable young Barbara Frittoli, who would have been perfect. This Lauretta sounds more like Rinuccio’s mother than his sweetheart, when the tenor is so winningly sung by the youthful Roberto Alagna. Leo Nucci’s characterful, dry-voiced Gianni almost saves the day but Bartoletti’s laboured conducting turns Puccini’s dazzling jeu d’esprit into a study in orchestration. The detail is all there, but the whole picture is dull beyond words. Hugh Canning