Puccini: The Operas

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Puccini
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Manon Lescaut; La bohème; Tosca; Madama Butterfly; La fanciulla del West; La rondine; Il trittico; Turandot; Le villi – extracts
PERFORMER: Alagna, De los Angeles, Bergonzi, Björling, Caballé, Callas, Corelli, Domingo, Freni, Domás, Gedda, Gheorghiu, Gobbi, Nilsson; Guleghina, Pappano, Prêtre, Schippers
CATALOGUE NO: EMI 215 4602

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Puccini’s rarely been very respected critically – witness Joseph Kerman’s famous Tosca trashing, ‘a shabby little shocker’. Lately, though, his musical originality and dramatic vividness have been taken more seriously, qualities which the two other sets of this recent trio provide us with ample and well-priced opportunities to judge for ourselves.

Most extensive is EMI’s 17-disc box with all the major works except the early Edgar – small loss – and even a snippet from Le villi, his first, in recordings ranging from the 1950s to the ’90s, with computer-readable librettos.

Weakest, perhaps, is Manon Lescaut with Caballé an improbable schoolgirl astray and Bruno Bartoletti’s amiable but unexciting conducting, but also Domingo’s ardent Des Grieux. Birgit Nilsson is equally unlikely as Minnie in von Matači’c’s La fanciulla del West, coarsely conducted and cast; her stainless-steel tones do better in Molinari-Pradelli’s gale-force Turandot, opposite Corelli and Scotto. Bohème is Thomas Schippers’s memorable recording, with Freni and Gedda appealing lovers.

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Tosca features the dream-team Callas and Gobbi, Bergonzi’s elegant Cavaradossi, but Prêtre’s shapeless conducting. Victoria de los Angeles’s winsome Madama Butterfly heads a fine performance, though Jussi Björling’s Pinkerton divides opinion, ringing but stiff. For Trittico we have Pappano’s excellent 1997 Tabarro and Suor Angelica, but Gianni Schicchi is the ripe Santini classic with Gobbi and de los Angeles. Michael Scott Rohan