This surely is the first recital of Puccini arias I’ve encountered in which the conductor receives so much of the attention: It is the third disc in Melba’s Richard Bonynge Edition. Nevertheless, it is soprano Cheryl Barker, costumed as Manon Lescaut, who appears on the cover. …
Barker, an Australian singer now in her early-50s, studied with Joan Hammond and has had a successful international career. She has been treated kindly in these pages by other reviewers. A few years back I wrote an online review of her DVD of Madama Butterfly, and was quite pleased with her there as well. This all-Puccini CD probably will not disappoint anyone who has been impressed with her so far. … she has a solid, secure voice and clearly knows what she is doing. Her sound is bright and even. She sounds like a young woman. Even her Tosca is less mature than most, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. …
One example of Barker’s interpretive insight is in Butterfly’s “Che tua madre.” She starts off with a light, conversational tone, exactly as if she were talking to a small child—which she is, of course. Many sopranos forget that this aria is addressed to Trouble. Barker, however, maintains a “motherly” tone of voice, and almost imperceptibly darkens it as she finally becomes lost in the imagined horror of having to return, with her son, to her life as a geisha. The final cry of “Morta!” is genuinely heartbreaking. Barker is an intelligent singer, and her voice… doesn’t let her down and doesn’t prevent her from making the interpretive points she wants to make.
I have not listed the arias she sings in the headnote. None of the “usual suspects” are missing, though, except for Turandot’s arias. (Barker opts for Liù instead, although I feel she might have an interesting and effective Turandot in her.) The two songs are nice additions. Sole e amore shares its melody with “Addio, dolce svegliare” from La bohème, so it is less unfamiliar than you might be thinking.
Bonynge’s Puccini is not revelatory, but it is fresh, and sensitive to Barker’s strengths. The State Orchestra of Victoria (Australia) is completely capable.
The disc is lavishly packaged in a small hardcover book, with a clear plastic slipcase. The packaging is as handsome as the performances.
There probably are too many Puccini recitals on the market. Barker’s is a cut above many of them, and I have no reservations about recommending it to the curious.