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On CD: The Puccini You Don't Know

Given the glossy press folders that usually accompany a Deutsche Grammophon opera-related release (viz. Danielle De Niese's Mozart Album and Renee Fleming's earnest "Verismo" album), I was mildly surprised that the label allowed one to be released with a minimum of hype. But "Puccini Rediscovered" is something of a lost child, not quite sure what it wants to be. Is it a showcase for big-name singers -- in which case the soprano Violeta Urmana isn't quite big, or good, enough to carry such a project, and Plácido Domingo, who appears on the cover and two of the tracks, isn't represented enough -- or simply an attempt to milk yet more out of the composer's sesquicentennial year, even though the release comes a year late? (Even the title is unoriginal, presumably trying to ride on the coattails of RCA/Sony's often superlative series.)
(read more after the jump)

However, this recording has many charms. They're just not necessarily the charms you expect. The idea is to include only unfamiliar selections, from earlier versions of familiar arias (Madama Butterfly's death scene, Manon Lescaut's "Sola, perduta, abbandonata") to forgotten orchestral works like an ingratiating "Preludio a orchestra" that sounds like the work of a talented teenager, and was (Puccini wrote it when he was 18 years old). All of this is much furthered by the fact that it's being played by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted very well by Alberto Veronesi, who conducted a recording of Puccini's early opera "Edgar" with Domingo in 2006, and who heads the annual Puccini festival in Torre del Lago, the composer's erstwhile home. (The list of sponsors at the back of the CD booklet supports the idea that this is a special project, perhaps of Veronesi's, rather than a DG initiative.)

It's not all necessarily music one wants to hear again and again, but some of the selections are a delight: the early version of the Act II quartet from "Rondine" is no less sparkling than its final incarnation, and lets you know early on in this CD that you're hearing some serious voices.

The charm you don't get is a real Puccini soprano. Urmana, alas, doesn't fill the bill: the voice is at once foggy and thin, and always leaves me feeling like she doesn't have enough muscle to back up her intentions, as if there were more potential that isn't opening up. As for Domingo: he sounds absolutely amazing in the selection from "Edgar," but otherwise cedes the field to two other, quite respectable tenors. Urmana shares billing with her husband, Alfredo Nigro, in a duet from "Fanciulla del West," and Stefano Secco is an ardent Ruggero in an aria from "Rondine."

By Anne Midgette  |  September 25, 2009; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  CD reviews  
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