This CD is sub-titled ‘The Richard Bonynge Edition’. As the note in the bulky booklet, with translations in German, French and Italian points out, Bonynge’s 40+ year career, whilst being notable for the role he has played in reviving interest in the ‘bel-canto’ and French operatic repertoire, has only involved him in conducting four Puccini operas. Maybe this should have been sub-titled: ‘Vol. 1 of the Cheryl Barker Edition’! Whilst not as well known world-wide as Bonynge, Barker has a devoted following in Australia, her native country, as well as in Europe, particularly Britain, where she is known as a highly skilled and committed singer who gives her all on the stage.
Cheryl Barker has a very individual vibrant lyric soprano voice that conveys much emotion. There is within the voice a beat that helps in conveying the passion in Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte’ (tr. 8) and agony in Butterfly’s ‘Un bel di’ (tr. 9). But these are big ‘sings’ in the opera house, and in a large theatre, such as London’s Coliseum, where she sang two series of Tosca in 2003, Barker must beware of pressing her tone too hard, or that vocal vibrancy so appealing here in those two mentioned roles, could become a wide vibrato and worse, a wobble. Here on CD, there is no such worry and her tone, support of the voice and vocal characterisation is a joy. She is also heard to particularly good effect as Mimi (trs. 5-7), Angelica (tr. 14) and Manon (trs. 3-4) whilst she is perhaps not gentle enough as Liu (trs. 16-17) ...
As the renowned opera critic Rodney Milnes writes in his detailed and informative essay on ‘Puccini’s Little Women’, the composer gave them big music to sing. Consequently great sopranos have been drawn to the genre and many have set their interpretations down on disc. Kiri Te Kanawa (Erato) has a lovely even lyric voice but her conveying of character wouldn’t set the world on fire, ever; on the contrary Barker’s voice and interpretation has that potential. Whilst, as yet, lacking the skill Caballe exhibits on EMI under Mackerras, Barker’s interpretations make as satisfying a disc of this demanding repertoire as I have heard in a long time. The content is more complete than most and has the advantage of chronology. Barker conveys the two songs (trs. 18-19) with grace and eloquence to orchestrations by Brian Castles-Onion.
Postscript: Robert Farr later gave the CD his personal "CD of the year" award for 2004.