Puccini=Passion SACD

Randolph Magri-Overend
Fine Music (Australia)
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Maria Vandamme, the founder of Melba Records, is a remarkable woman. She is, according to Lily Bragge of The Age ‘a juggernaut determined to turn Australia’s classical musicians into stars’. That was written in 2003. Since starting the Melba label around the year 2000 she has, at the last count, recorded artists of the calibre of Richard Bonynge and Guillaume Tourniaire (both conductors), Steve Davislim (tenor), Ray Chen (violin), the late Deborah Riedel (soprano), Rosamund Illing (soprano), Greg Yurisich (baritone) and many others. One of the earlier Australian artists in Ms Vandamme’s stable was soprano Cheryl Barker and the CD under review is a re-issue of an album  originally released in 2002/3. Barker has issued a later album entitled Pure Diva (also on the Melba label) in which she pays tribute to one of her vocal tutors – the late Dame Joan Hammond. Oddly enough Dame Joan was the person who confirmed Steve Davislim as a tenor and he continues to repay her with great success internationally.

Cheryl Barker also continues to sing with great success although when the Puccini repertoire was chosen for her, her leanings were towards the romantic and lush sounds of this Italian composer. Her earlier career was marked with numerous triumphal renditions of Madame Butterfly but it was her performance as Mini in Baz Luhrmann’s youthful OA production of La Bohème that initially stamped her as a potential Puccini heroine. These days she has widened her vocal horizons and appears to prefer the music of Richard Strauss. In fact, the cover photograph on this album could have been snapped at one of Barker’s performance as The Marschellin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Either way, her voice is rich enough to do credit to both composers. This recording is interesting in that the arias are arranged chronologically in the order they were composed. Thus we start with ‘Se come voi piccina’ from La Villi composed in 1884 and conclude (except for a couple of canzone which bookend the final two tracks) with ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta’ the Liu aria from the unfinished Turandot. Barker’s voice is pleasant to the ear, warmly controlled, passionate with a minimum of vibrato and ably supported by the unerring musicality of Richard Bonynge conducting the State Orchestra of Victoria. I don’t think Ms Vandamme has to prove herself to us any longer; she has fulfilled what she set out to do but, regardless, long may she persist with her juggernauting.