Puccini–The Definitive Collection

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Puccini
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Manon Lescaut; La bohème; Madama Butterfly; Tosca; Turandot
PERFORMER: Pavarotti, Freni, Caballé, Sutherland; Herbert von Karajan, Zubin Mehta
CATALOGUE NO: 475 9404 DX11 Reissue (1973-93)

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Of the recent rash of Puccini opera sets (see also The Operas and Maria Callas – The Complete Puccini Studio Recordings) this Decca edition seems, on the face of it, to promise most and offer least – a brash scarlet box including only five operas (with librettos) gold-stamped Puccini: The Definitive Collection. Such modesty – but nevertheless at least 3/5ths true, especially in the glow of Decca’s superb analogue recordings.

It opens with the Karajan Bohème, the finest available (alongside Beecham’s more problematical version), with Pavarotti and Freni in total rapport, superb support from Harwood and Rolando Panerai, and Karajan rich in nostalgia for lost youth and love.

His Butterfly with the same leading pair is almost as fine, slightly Technicolor but passionate, sensuous and ultimately heartbreaking. Decca assembled them again, with Sherrill Milnes, for a Karajan Tosca, but the conductor was replaced by the soggy and above all unmenacing Nicola Rescigno. James Levine’s warmly dramatic Manon Lescaut is much better, with Freni tragically winsome and Pavarotti a boyish Des Grieux.

We return to the heights, though, with a magnificently unconventional Turandot – Zubin Mehta conducting? Caballé as Liu? And Joan Sutherland as the Icy Princess? Yet this is the single most recommendable version, every singer outstanding, every element beautifully integrated and Mehta crackling with theatrical energy and grandeur.

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Pavarotti invests Calaf with unusual humanity, and Sutherland, lacking Callas’s expressive steel, makes a troubled rather than destructive anti-heroine, all the more effective. Michael Scott Rohan