Musicweb International
Robert J Farr
RECORDING OF THE MONTH - Nessun Dorma: The Puccini Album

In the era of recorded music from roughly 1900 certain star names from classical music and opera have become household ones. In the world of classical music most often these have been conductors or singers with the occasional instrumentalist. Notable early names included Toscanini on the rostrum and the tenor Caruso. They were not alone, albeit were nearly dominant in the popular mind going by sales of the 78 rpm shellac discs that followed the primitive early cylinders. Among singers it has always seemed that tenors dominated the sales charts. Caruso was followed by the likes and fame of Gigli, Schipa, Tagliavini, and Corelli among others; not should we forget Lanza although he never sang staged opera. As tenor popularity moved on from records to film, and even football matches, so names such as Domingo and Pavarotti became world renowned. Their fame extended well beyond the normal realm of their operatic skill and specialism. In the present day, after the retirement or death of the latter two, there had been something of a vacuum until the spectacular emergence of the Bavarian Jonas Kaufmann who seems to be in constant demand at the best operatic addresses along with music spectaculars such as the BBC Promenade concerts.

Like Domingo, Kaufmann has a defined stage persona and the macho physical attributes of a super star. These attributes extend to a range that takes in the demanding roles of German and Italian repertoire. In the present collection which moves naturally from his Verdi collection (Sony 8867492002) where he showed his skills among the early works through the composer's middle period Rigoletto and Traviata all the way to his penultimate work, Otello, a role that many tenors will not tackle because of vocal strain. Along the way in that collection Kaufmann showed his respect for the composer’s intentions in the conclusion to Celeste Aida, just as he does in the recent complete recording of the work. That sensitivity and musicianship allied to his vocal ability and prowess is also evident in this Puccini programme. This ranges from Puccini's earliest works to his final one, Turandot, completed by Alfano, with encouragement from Toscanini after the composer’s death.

The CD takes in the whole of the Puccini operatic oeuvre with the exception of Suor Angelica in which there are no male roles. A minor regret is that the repertoire is not covered in chronological order. It starts with the composer’s first great success, Manon Lescaut, after the very modestly received Le Villi and Edgar. After the lukewarm reception of his first two operas, with his domestic life in a mess and unable to settle with the chosen librettists, who were changed to the extent that none put his name to the programme at the premiere, Puccini thought of emigration to America. Being aware of these difficulties, and that La Scala was to premiere Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff shortly after the scheduled premiere of Manon Lescaut, his publisher Ricordi moved the venue of the premiere away from the Milan highlights to Turin. Despite these last minute fears, the work was a resounding success, the applause beginning after the brief tenor aria Tra voi, belle in act 1 when Puccini had to appear on stage to acknowledge the applause. At the end of the performance the composer and cast took thirty curtain-calls. Manon Lescaut set Puccini on a secure financial and artistic future and sets this CD off to a thrilling start. He is accompanied by Kristine Opolais as Manon as he was in the performances of the work at Covent Garden in June 2014, a performance transmitted to cinemas and recently appearing on Blu-ray and DVD.

What is impressive in this collection, as in the Verdi disc referred to, is how Kaufmann varies both the modulation and tonal variety of his voice to match the character and dramatic situation being portrayed. He effortlessly essays the big notes in Nessun Dorma, in the written key and full voice (Tr.6), no downward transposition for him. There's also a tender Non piangere, Liù! (Tr.15). Similarly, his assumption of Ruggero from La Rondine (Tr.12) and Rinuccio from Gianni Schicchi (Tr. 14). Personally I would also have preferred the inclusion of Che gelida manina to the duet O soave fanciulla (Tr.7 from La boheme). However, it seems that I cannot have both and there is nothing to fault in the singing in the duet. At only sixty minutes I could also have had e lucevan la stele from Tosca as well as the well-sung Recondita armonia (Tr.8) with its excellent expression and phrasing, characteristics of Kaufmann throughout this disc. Is that being greedy? Well if Sony could mange 75 minutes on the Verdi album then this could have run for more. Yes, I know Kaufmann has recorded those Puccini arias already, but not with the Pappano on the rostrum - this conductor's contribution to this collection is magnificent. Kristine Opolais is a worthy partner as she was in that cinema transmission of Manon Lescaut, and in the DVD extracts (Chs. 4-6).

Is the De Luxe version worth the extra money? My answer, with Christmas on the horizon is: in for a penny in for a pound, or more. You won’t regret it down the track. The views of Rome and the singer talking in perfect English (Chs 1-3) are more than worth the extra money.

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