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

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.

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.

The apparent star of this package is Karajan, but his "remake" is in every way a step backward from his Vienna Philharmonic recording, now on London (OSA - 1284). That set has glorious sound, Karajan's gripping reading, a superbly fresh-voiced Leontyne Price, and Giuseppe Taddei's savvy, seasoned Scarpia. Here, the sound is murky and distant. Karajan dawdles lazily over every detail, and the performance becomes an endless series of antidramatic fits and starts that lead nowhere. If Ricciarelli evinced a scrap of personality, perhaps she could have added fire to the proceedings. As it is, she cannot negotiate a simple swell from soft to loud voice, and is so reticent and unassuming that a hermit would be bold in this lady's presence.

Carreras is in real trouble here, and there appear to be tricks of miking and even of editing to disguise his increasingly alarming shortcomings. Raimoni's petty, diminutive approach to Scarpia has nothing to do with Puccini or even acceptable singing. If Karajan's intent was to have a cast he could mold without preconception based on actual stage performance, or even if he merely wanted a cast that would not call attention away from the orchestral playing by the ever-fabulous Berlin Philharmonic, he has nonetheless created a conspicuous fiasco of a recording.

By comparison, London OSA (12113) is a marvelous recording, even though it is in fact outclassed by just about every other "Tosca" in the catalog. It was clearly recorded to enshrine Luciano Pavarotti in a role he is not ideal for, but his fans won't care. At least they are getting a heroine in Mirella Freni, who knows the idiom to the last detail, even though Tosca is not a role she will be going on stage (one hopes!). The voice just barely copes with the strenuous climaxes (Ricciarelli's simply does not). But she knows what animates the role, and she makes it her own. Sherrill Milens is an acceptable, if not particularly elegant Scarpia, and Nicola Rescigno knows what Puccini expected from an orchestra (the handsome National Philharmonic). As always, the London sound is stupendous.

Going back a season or two, a Scotto Butterfly of Columbia (M3 335181) is of passing interest because her first recording on Angel was a classic, and she has gained so many vivid new insights into the role since then. But in Lorin Maazel , she has met a foil that no one can counter. It is as if he were out to show how much he dislikes Puccini, sentiment, and even opera. He singlehandedly scuttles what should have been a triumph for Miss Scotto. Placido Domingo is not a very engaging Pinkerton. Ingvar Wixell proves merely adequate as Sharpless. The Columbia sound is muffled and pervaded with a blurring accoustical haze that annoys more than it aids.

Monterrat Caballe is due to sing the title role of "Turandot" at the Met this season (strike permitting). Her Angel recording (SCLX-3857) finds her in raucous voice, and surrounded with problems. The biggest problem is listening to Carreras shout his way through a role that more potent-voiced tenors have come to grief in. His efforts make one wince at the sheer stress he is putting on his lyric instrument. Mirella Freni was one of the finest Liu's around, and there is still enough beauty in the voice for the role here, but she is caught in less than smooth form. The Strasbourg Philharmonic sounds rather second-rate in the dry, hollow accoustic provided for this set. And Alain Lombard perpetrated almost as many unpleasant eccentricities on this score as Maazel does on "Butterfly," rendering the entire venture utterly unrecommendable.

A time will have to come when the companies put a halt to the extravagance of recordings that offer nothing new in terms of repertoire insights. Of this entire pack, only the Angel "Boheme" comes close to justifying itself, though it hardly supercedes London's triumphant 1973 performance with Freni, Pavarotti, and Karajan.

Had Columbia come up with a stronger job of opera conducting (which emphatically did not do) Scotto would have been given the triump she richly deserved. (But then again, Columbia denied her a full Puccini "Trittico" -- in which she was brilliant at the Met -- when they gave "Gianni Schicchi" to Ileana Ctrubas, who was found effortfully wanting.)

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