[Cheryl Barker] is in her vocal prime. With Richard Bonynge approaching Puccini’s music with fresh eyes – he had conducted fairly little Puccini – we are in for a very attractive traversal of the Italian maestro’s ‘love affair with the soprano voice’. It should be noted, though, that this is not a complete traversal: there is no Minnie (La fanciulla del West), no Giorgetta (Il tabarro) and no Turandot – for obvious reasons. These are the three most dramatic soprano roles in Puccini’s œuvre and Ms Barker and Melba wisely left them out as unsuitable for her voice. As compensation we are offered two little songs at the end of the recital.
We start the journey in 1884 with Le Villi, a horrible story based on the Giselle legend. Anna’s aria is sung as a farewell to her beloved Roberto – or rather sung to his suitcase – before he leaves on a long journey. It is an inspired piece and the melody certainly points forward to the masterpieces that were to pour out of his pen within a decade. It is brilliantly sung. It took Puccini another five years to present his next opera Edgar, which suffers from ‘the worst libretto ever devised by the mind of man’, as Rodney Milnes drastically puts it in his liner notes. Fidelia’s aria heard here is another farewell to a beloved man, though in this case for ever since he is supposed to be dead. In fact he isn’t. It’s a lugubrious piece that gives the soprano opportunities to soar in powerful phrases above the full orchestra.
Puccini needed four more years for his third opera and here we have a work that has stood the test of time and is firmly rooted in the standard repertoire, Manon Lescaut. Less than ten years earlier Massenet had written his Manon, based on the same novel by Abbé Prévost and Ricordi, Puccini’s publisher didn’t like the idea since Massenet’s opera was already established and very popular. Puccini persevered, however, and the two works are now among the very few based on the same story that have managed to co-exist. The two arias heard here are both gems in the soprano repertoire. Sola, perduta from the last act is sung when Manon realises that she is going to die in the desert. It is given a deeply moving reading by Cheryl Barker.
From La bohème we get both of Mimi’s arias. Actually Sono andati from the last act is also an aria, kind of. They are well sung. Si, mi chiamano Mimi is rather restrained and conversational. This is no showpiece but from Ma quando vien lo sgelo Barker expands gloriously, possibly the most impressive singing on this recital...Vissi d’arte from Tosca is another impressive reading with a mighty climax and beautiful scaling down in the final bars.
Cio-Cio San – which is Japanese for Butterfly – is in effect impossible to create convincingly on stage: a frail 15-year-old girl requiring a Tosca voice! On records the problem is less obvious. We can sit back and wallow in the soprano’s magnificent outbreaks. The role is a kind of signature role for Cheryl Barker and here we get three central excerpts from the opera.
Also from La rondine we get more than we are used to hearing, not only Doretta’s dream but also the waltz Ore dolce è divine. Both Senza Mamma and O mio babbino caro are most beautifully sung. Liù’s two arias from Turandot are worthy conclusions to this programme, covering 40 years of composition. The bonus songs are charming too. E l’uccellino was written in 1899 for the child of a friend who died soon after his marriage and before the child was born. Sole e amore from 1888 may be unknown as a title but the melody was recycled by Puccini for the quartet at the end of act III of La bohème.
This is a very attractive disc, well recorded and with excellent orchestral playing. Admirers of Cheryl Barker need not hesitate: Go out and buy!