Skip to main content

 Favourites, Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo PucciniCall me an old softie, but there's just something about the music of Puccini that moves me every time: be it the drama of Turandot and Tosca, the touching tenderness of La bohème, or the emotional tragedy of Madama Butterfly.

Of course, the hard part with these articles is always having to narrow it down to just one choice. Looking through my selections, three people seem to dominate: personally I think there is no greater Puccini conductor alive today than Antonio Pappano, and when I think of my ideal tenors in the great roles, two names come immediately to mind: Plácido Domingo and Jonas Kaufmann.

I realise I have neglected many of the great Puccini singers of the past, and am somewhat biased towards relatively modern recordings, but I hope you'll agree there's something special about all of the versions I have chosen.

Operas

I simply had to choose Leontyne Price in the role of Tosca; the emotion in her voice at the end of Vissi d'arte is just heartbreaking. Plácido Domingo is at his expressive best as Cavaradossi, bringing a tear to the eye in his Act Three aria, E lucevan le stelle. With Sherrill Milnes as a truly menacing Scarpia, this is an ideal cast, all marshalled superbly by Zubin Mehta conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi sings perhaps one of his greatest roles: E lucevan le stelle is unbelievably moving, and his cry of "Vittoria! Vittoria!" is guaranteed to make your hair stand on end! Angela Gheorghiu is a passionate Tosca, and Bryn Terfel unctuously oozes sleaze in a chilling portrayal of Scarpia. Antonio Pappano conducts this 2011 Covent Garden production, directed by Jonathan Kent.

Available Format: DVD Video

Perhaps the most predictable of my choices, this recording, conducted by Zubin Mehta with Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, works for me on every level. Of course you get Pavarotti singing Nessun dorma at his lyrical best, but more importantly than that, Montserrat Caballé sings Liù, showing off her famed pianissimo to great effect at the end of Signore, ascolta. Finally, as a bonus bit of luxury casting, Peter Pears takes the small role of Turandot's father, Emperor Altoum.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

I attended this 2013 revival of Andrei Serban's production at Covent Garden (conducted by Henrik Nánási), and was knocked out by the stunning singing of American soprano Lise Lindstrom in the title role. Marco Berti is an imposing Calàf, and Eri Nakamura shines in a sympathetic portrayal of Liù.

Available Format: DVD Video

I adore John Copley's classic production of this opera, which has now been in the repertory at Covent Garden for forty years. This version comes from 2009, and features Teodor Ilincai and Hibla Gerzmava as a sensitive pair of lovers. In the pit, Andris Nelsons draws sumptuous, refined playing from the orchestra.

Available Format: DVD Video

For me, the main attraction of this set, wonderfully conducted by Antonio Pappano, is Jonas Kaufmann as Pinkerton. Glorious of tone throughout, his duet with Angela Gheorghiu at the end of Act One is ravishing. Gheorghiu herself is wistfully emotional in Un bel dì and affectingly tragic in Tu, tu piccolo Iddio.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC

Zubin Mehta brings just the right amount of swagger to this tale of sheriffs and bandits in the Wild West. Carol Neblett is commanding in the taxing role of Minnie, whilst Plácido Domingo is on marvellous form as the bandit, Dick Johnson. Much as he did in the role of Scarpia in Tosca, Sherrill Milnes brings a scheming menace to the part of Jack Rance, the sheriff. A splendid recording of perhaps my favourite Puccini opera.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC

A Hollywood-style updating in Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production from the Netherlands Opera, conducted by Carlo Rizzi. Traditionalists may not necessarily appreciate Minnie's somewhat garish, bright-pink bedroom, but Eva-Maria Westbroek is fantastic in the role, and Zoran Todorovich's Dick Johnson is full of charm.

Available Format: DVD Video

Lorin Maazel conducts this triptych of one-act operas, with Plácido Domingo (yes, him again...) taking on the roles of Luigi in Il tabarro and Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi. The latter opera also has the great Tito Gobbi as Schicchi. The highlight of this set, though, is an outstanding Suor Angelica, with Renata Scotto in the title role, supported by Marilyn Horne as her aunt, and Ileana Cotrubas (who also sings Lauretta in Schicchi) as Sister Genovieffa.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Antonio Pappano conducts a riotously raucous Schicchi, a bleak, foreboding Tabarro, and a poignant Suor Angelica in this 2007 Covent Garden production by Richard Jones. I can't think of a better cast for Tabarro than Lucio Gallo, Aleksandrs Antonenko, and Eva-Maria Westbroek, and Ermonela Jaho is a harrowingly sorrowful Suor Angelica. Wonderful stuff.

Available Format: 3 DVD Videos

Pappano again, with Angela Gheorghiu ideally suited to the role of Magda: her Act One aria, Chi il bel sogno di Doretta is lovely, and Roberto Alagna full of sweet-toned beauty in his Act Three aria, Dimmi che vuoi seguirmi. As an extra attraction, this set also includes highlights from Puccini's very first opera, Le Villi.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

By no means Puccini's best-known work, his second opera after Le Villi is a tale of a young man forced to choose between two women. This recording follows the revised, three-act version of the opera, and features Plácido Domingo in the title role, with Adriana Damato and Marianne Cornetti in the roles of Fidelia and Tigrana. Although the opera was not a success when first performed, and Puccini himself was rather scathing about it in later life, it does contain some fine music, and is worth investigating.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Choral Works and Aria Collections

The London Symphony Chorus are the stars of this recording of Puccini's choral work, and Roberto Alagna and Thomas Hampson are a fine pair of soloists, all conducted by Antonio Pappano. The recording also features Puccini's early orchestral piece, Preludio sinfonico, and a string-orchestra version of Crisantemi, both tenderly performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

If you're just looking for the "hit tunes" then this is a perfect place to start, with a satisfying variety of voices including Renée Fleming singing O mio babbino caro and Quando me'n vo, Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Tebaldi in O soave fanciulla, Joan Sutherland singing Senza mamma, o bimbo, and Montserrat Caballé's version of Vissi d'arte.

Available Format: CD

Chamber Works

A disc of chamber rarities showcasing Puccini's lighter side, performed here by Quartetto David. Alongside the original, string quartet version of Crisantemi are three Fugues, a Scherzo, three Minuets, and the String Quartet in D.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Boxed sets

A wonderful collection of the operas (excluding Edgar), with a dazzling Turandot sung by Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli, and Renata Scotto, a charming Bohème with Mirella Freni and Nicolai Gedda, and Maria Callas's classic account of Tosca opposite Carlo Bergonzi and Tito Gobbi.

Available Format: 17 CDs

For fans of Renata Tebaldi, this set is a dream come true, as she features in this collection of seven great operas, including her Mimì with Carlo Bergonzi as Rodolfo, and a sublime Tosca with Mario del Monaco and George London.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC