This SA-CD is a remastering of a former RBCD based on sessions in 2002 at the South Melbourne Town Hall. The inside cover mentions a new surround sound mix. Stereo download files on the Melba Website of the new bybrid discare in 96K/24 bit format. It is uncertain if this surround mix was artificially generated or comprises channels recorded at the sessions. To my ears, the centre and surrounds sound quite believable, so if the mixing was done electronically, it has been successful. The recording is well-balanced, and I note that the reverberance of the auditorium only shows itself when the orchestra is playing loudly, so it needs plenty of energy to excite the acoustic. I found that I needed to play the disc at several notches above my usual level, but then the sound stage expanded laterally and also had notably more front-to-back perspective, with more textural detail and bass punch.
Sonics apart, although this disc is referred to as an instalment in Melba's Richard Bonynge Edition, it is Cheryl Barker who is the undoubted star here. Bonynge has only conducted a few Puccini operas, while she has been establishing an international presence with her Puccini performances, particularly as Butterfly and Liù.
One aim of the disc is to present the arias in chronological order, from Le Villi, Puccini's first opera, to Turandot, his last and unfinished one. This not only shows clearly how his writing for the "Little Women" (as he called his female roles) develops in breadth of character and inspired vocal writing, but also in his fine orchestrations. We can also hear the evolution of his strengthening of story-telling support, slow changes in harmonic modernity and a devastating level of emotional expression (the famous Puccini body-blows at the end of each opera). Such is Puccini's contribution to the 'verismo' opera style, so pilloried in its early days.
There are arias from Le Villi (1884) and Edgar, two from Manon Lescaut, three from La Bohéme, one from Tosca, three from Madama Butterfly, one each from La Rondine, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi and two from Turandot (1926). At the end of the disc are two delightful orchestrally-accompanied songs which are rarely heard but are ineffably charming, especially as sung so affectionately by Cheryl Barker. Apart from her distinctive lyric soprano voice, which is sweet and superbly controlled, Cheryl Barker is in demand at great opera houses for her acting abilities and characterisations. There are stacks of CDs carrying selections of Puccini arias by generations of sopranos, but not all of them bother with the characters they are portraying, preferring to let their vocal skills alone carry the music. One of the great pleasures of this disc is the adaptation of the Barker voice to the situation of a character in each aria, which she does with great skill and subtlety. In this endeavour, she is strongly supported by the very experienced Richard Bonynge and the very willing players of the State Orchestra of Victoria.
As usual, Melba's presentation in a book-style digipac is excellent, with essays on the music in English, German and French and full lyrics in Italian with good English translations.
I have no doubt that this is one of the best available Puccini aria recordings, especially in its new high-definition format. Warmly recommended, therefore, although you might find you need a fresh box of tissues close at hand.