Puccini: Manon Lescaut

COMPOSERS: Puccini
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Manon Lescaut
PERFORMER: Montserrat Caballe, Placido Domingo, Vicente Sardinero, Noel ManginAmbrosian Opera Chorus, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Bruno Bartoletti
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 7 64852 2 AAD
EMI has added eight further titles to its impressive range of archive recordings of core works that have been digitally remastered (the sound is generally excellent), repackaged and reissued at mid-price. But if the existing collection tended to focus on staples — Bohm’s sublime Cost (1963), with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig and Alfredo Kraus; Karajan’s splendid Aida (1980), with Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Agnes Baltsa, Piero Cappuccilli, Ruggero Raimondi, Jose^ van Dam and Katia Ricciarelli, and Tristan (1972), with Jon Vickers and Helga Dernesch; and Barbirolli’s fervent Madama Butterfly (1966), with Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi -the new additions expand the series’ scope significantly.

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The most unexpected of the new reissues is the sparkling 1956 recording of Cornelius’s long-neglected and romantically ‘oriental’ Der Barbier von Bagdad. Starring Schwarzkopf, Gedda, Prey and Hoffman, all at the top of their formidable form, the performances are perfection, and the piece, based on the Arabian Nights story, a delight. It is coupled with Busoni’s stylised and brilliantly parodic caprice Arlecchino.

Other treats in this series include a searing Andrea Chenier (1964) -Franco Corelli and Antonietta Stella both superbly noble and idealistic in their stirring star turns; a low-key, but intensely moving Manon Lescaut with Caballe, Domingo and a largely British supporting cast; and Bellini’s / Capuleti e i Montecchi, recorded live at the Royal Opera House in 1984 and remarkable for the thrilling vocal pyrotechnics of Baltsa and Gruberova as the star-crossed lovers.

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Several other operas have been reissued at full price, among them Klemperer’s monumental 1962 Fidelia, with Ludwig, Vickers and Gottlob Frick, and a sparkling 1964 Zauberflote, with Gundula Janowitz, Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Frick and Gedda, and the advantage (to my ear) of having had all the spoken dialogue cut; and Karajan’s 1954 Ariadne, ravishingly sung by Schwarzkopf, Rita Streich, Irmgard Seefried and, especially, Rudolf Schock. Such is the exceptional standard of these five-star performances, however, that cost shouldn’t be a deterrent. Claire Wrathall