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Puccini: as popular ever -- if he's treated right

By Thor Eckert Jr. / September 12, 1980


Opera recordings keep being issued with regularity, yet so few of the total can be considered classics. Why do the recording companies continue to put out yet another version of a Puccini favorite? Sometimes it is in the earnest hope that another classic is in the making. Other times it is to appease the demands of a star singer. Too often these days, however, the entire raison d'etre seems altogether obscured.

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Preplanning does not always ensure the greatest success. The classic Sir Thomas Beecham performance of Puccini's "La Boheme" was thrown together at the very last minute and came precariously close to not happening at all. Doubtless that tension created a "live performance" feeling in the recording studio.

It was also as strong a cast as ever will be had in the opera, headed by soprano Victoria de los Angeles, tenor Jussi Bjorling, and Lucine Amara, Robert Merrill, Giorgio Tozzi, John Reardon, and Fernando Corena. They all interacted well, their voices were well matched.

Angel's newest "Boheme" (the company's budget label Seraphim has that Beecham "Boheme" in very convincing pseudo-stereo) was almost at the last minute. RCA had just scuttled plans for a complete "La Gioconda," so EMI (James Levine), some of the singers (Renata Scotto, Sherrill Milnes, Paul Plishka), added others (Alfredo Kraus, Carol Neblett, Matteo Manuguerra) and, of course, the orchestra, the National Philharmonic.

It would be nice to be able to state that SZBX-3900 is a classic performance, but it just misses. Some of the supporting singers seem less than involved. Carol Neblett comes across as a thick-voiced, dour Musetta. Neither Miss Scott nor Mr. Kraus are in representative voice. Levine does not keep a thread running throughout the performance.

There are superb moments all over the four sides, but they do not coalesce. Miss Scotto's voice has been put through some rigorous paces of late and they show in a pronounced waver that threatens to become a vocal billow. Nor does the timbre blend ideally with Kraus's dry tone. Hers is a warm, attentive, dramatically convincing portrayal that only her current vocal limitations compromise. His is a patrician, elegant Rodolfo, not quite ardent and passionate enough, though always tasteful and superbly musical.

Milnes is a solid Marcello, and there is good character work from Renato Capecchi (Alcindoro) and Italo Tajo (Benoit). The engineered sound is quite stupendous -- open, clear, nicely reverberant for the singers, without blurring detail work in the superb orchestra.

Had this set been done five years ago, it could have been quite exceptional. Had Philips recorded "Boheme" with its current cast five years ago, it would have been glorious. For then Jose Carrera's handsome tenor showed no stress, and Katia Riciarelli had not begun showing the distressing signs of vocal wear that are all too evident on this new "Boheme" (Philips 6769 031).

Both leads are surprisingly general in their approaches to roles they have sung -- often together -- for quite a while now. Ashley Putnam is the bland, faceless Musetta. She, too, shows evidence of vocal problems that will surely cut into what had been touted a few years ago as an important career. Ingvar Wixell is rather woolly voiced as Marcello, Robert Lloyd is less than ideal as Colline. The Royal Opera House Orchestra sounds good enough, and the engineering is better than many Philips ventures with that orchestra.

But Sir Colin Davis shows here, as he did in "tosca" a few years back, that Puccini's basic idiom eludes him. There are good moments aplenty, but overall, nothing really seems to happen. In general, slowness seems an end in itself, serving no artistic purpose.

Philips shows us a young generation of international artists showing off in various degress of crisis. Angel's cast of veterans are in the distaff end of long and exciting careers. (What will the next decade bring, one wonders?) 'Tosca' and others

That theme carries even more glaringly into Herbert von Karajan's new Tosca for DG records (2707 121). Ricciarelli essays a role in the studio she must never attempt on stage. Carreras repeats a role he has put to vinyl for Philips , and Ruggero Raimondi struggles with the high-lying line of Scarpia's music, a role he, too, cannot do onstage.