Thursday December 22 is the 158th birthday of one of the greatest opera composers of all time – Giacomo Puccini.
The Italian composer is best known for his brilliant melodic invention and his operatic output, while relatively small when compared with the likes of Italian predecessors such as Verdi, Rossini or Donizetti, is among the most popular in the entire canon.
Puccini composed a total of 10 operas (though the “Triticco” is composed of three) and they have been recorded numerous times over the past century. Here is a look at my personal favorites, the recordings I view as essential for anyone that wants one look at the greatest of each Puccini opera.
Placido Domingo, Renata Scotto, Leo Nucci, Lorin Maazel (1979)
There aren’t many offerings for Puccini’s first opera, but the most renowned is a solid effort by Puccini expert Scotto alongside frequent collaborator Domingo. The two strike up tremendous chemistry which will carry over to other Puccini recordings, most notably their “Madama Butterfly.”
Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi, Eve Queler (1977)
Puccini’s other early effort and again we see Scotto digging deeper into repertoire that suits her quite perfectly. Bergonzi, another of her frequent collaborators, is in fine form as well.
Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tullio Serafin (1959)
Callas never actually sang the role on stage, but it matters little here as the great soprano delivers a performance that few have ever matched. She captures every nuance of Manon, the coquettish girl to the cruel seductress to the woman dying in agony. The emotional journey is quite riveting with Callas showcasing just the wide-ranging color palette that few others, if any, ever had. Her “Sola, perduta, abandonatta” might be the single best interpretation of that aria for Callas’ immaculate dramatic pacing and the guttural power she produced in the climax.
Di Stefano, while on his best day, sings passionately throughout and his chemistry with Callas in their scenes is as good as it has ever been.
Victoria de los Angeles, Jussi Bjorling, Robert Merrill, Lucine Amara, Sir Thomas Beecham (1956)
There are two “easy” choices on this list in that it is impossible not to pick them. This “Boheme” is the first of these choices with De Los Angeles and Bjorling absolutely in line with one another from their first moments to the very end. De Los Angeles’ delicate timbre makes us truly feel the growing weakness and impending death of Mimi and her singing throughout that final act is fittingly nuanced in how she saps her sound of its brightness to express the sense of death coming over the heroine. Merrill and Amara are also at the top of their game and Beecham’s account of this score is better paced than anyone since, with the youthful energy present throughout the opera.
Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Titto Gobbi, Victor de Sabata (1953)
The other “easy” choice on this list, this is for many the landmark recording. The one that everyone else is compared to. And for good reason.
Callas was Tosca in every sense and she is in top form in this performance. Her expression and way with every beat of that second act drama thrusts you right there to the point that you can visualize everyone moment and movement of her performance. The same goes for Gobbi, who’s rougher colors play perfectly into Callas’ own cruder sound and contrast with Di Stefano’s warm lyricism. The passion is there from its three main stars in a recording that is simply perfect from start to finish.
Victoria de los Angeles, Guiseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Gianandrea Gavazzeni (1955)
From the opening lines of Victoria de los Angeles’ entrance as Cio Cio San, the listener truly gets the vocal portrait of a young and innocent girl. Listening to that sound and how it evolves into a darker, bitter and anguished quality by the end of the opera is like any other. Di Stefano’s bright voice and articulate phrasing makes him the perfect Pinkerton while Gobbi infuses Sharpless with more personality than any other baritone to take on the role.
La Fanciulla del West
Renata Tebaldi, Mario del Monaco, Cornell Macneil, Franco Capuana (1958)
Tebaldi is arguably the Minnie of the century, no other singer championing the role more than she ever had. Her landmark recording here sees in her the best form of her career, her voice, while not always clean in its upper registers, digging deep into the dramatic treasures of this score. The urgency in the card playing scene is present in her pointed articulation, a stark contrast to her more delicate lyricism in the love scene in Act 1.
Del Monaco’s powerful voice, not always the most polished legato line, fits this opera’s rugged setting perfectly and his high notes, as usual, are just exhilarating to listen to. Cornell Macneil is the final piece to this puzzle, his tension with Tebaldi exhilarating on a level that evokes Callas and Gobbi’s in “Tosca.”
Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Marco Armiliato (2008)
The Romanian diva has a CD recording with Alagna and Pappano that might be a more technically polished account by both artists, but the video performance shows a more nuanced and musically-mature Gheorghiu in the role of Magda. Moreover, while this is the final performance that these two enjoyed together at the Met, it still showcases the incredible chemistry they had throughout their career, a chemistry that propelled both of them to incredible heights.
The Met’s production, directed by Nicolas Joel, is pleasant to look out and while it does not present much of note or comment toward Puccini’s work, it allows the audience to place all of its attention on the performers, which are the true treasures here.
Renata Scotto, James Levine (1981)
There are numerous recordings of these three works worthy of note, but seeing Scotto in performance taking on this monstrous task of singing all three operas back-to-back is riveting. This set alone shows us how brilliant Scotto was as an actress, a generous collaborator and a detailed performer. “Suor Angelica” is, in my opinion, the most riveting of the three as Scotto exposes the internal tragedy in a way that breaks your heart every time.
Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, Galina Vishnevskaya (1964)
Another touchstone recording, this time with two of the greatest exponents of their respective roles. Listening to Nilsson, one is constantly left wondering how the Swedish soprano is so consistently unfazed by the monstrous abuse Puccini puts on her voice in this role. She gets out of one vocal maze and then into another, all the while being asked to blast sound over an increasingly titanic orchestral sound. She never falters not once, her voice as fresh from the beginning to the end of this recording, the characterization also confident and consistent.
The same goes for Corelli whose glorious sound, polished high notes and dramatic intensity make for the best of the best when it comes to the role of Calaf.
Their riddle scene is a dramatic feast with both at the top of their games and their real-life onstage rivalry coming through in a visceral and immersive way. That scene alone makes this recording definitive.
Disagree with this list? Have your own favorites that should have been on this list? We invite you to please share your comments below!