, September 2009
The three short operas which together make up Il Trittico—Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi—have always been, for me, the toughest nut to crack among Puccini’s operas. For all the beauty of the music, Suor Angelica is very static and the ending somewhat contrived by comparison with Tosca, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Turandot and even Manon Lescaut, all of which rank among my favourite operas after Mozart and Wagner. With an all-female cast, too, there’s no opportunity for those wonderful duets.
If any recording was going to convince me to add Suor Angelica to that select list, it would have to be this one. Made in 1957, it was released to immediate acclaim and still finds a deserved place in the catalogue, as an EMI Great Recording (212714–2, 3 mid-price CDs with the other Trittico recordings), on the GOP label (GOP66391, mid-price) and now, even less expensively, in one of the Naxos Mark Obert-Thorn transfers, where it joins two other Puccini recordings by Victoria de los Angeles, her classic recording of La Bohème, with Jussi Björling under Sir Thomas Beecham (8.111249–50) and Butterfly with Giuseppe Di Stefano under Gianandrea Gavazzeni (8.111291–92). Göran Forsling thought that the latter should be in every Puccini collection…The de los Angeles/Beecham Bohème not only remains the best performance available, it also sounds well in the Past Classics transfer. If anything, the new Naxos transfer of Suor Angelica sounds even better. Though made as late as 1957, when stereo recording was well established, Suor [Angelica] was recorded in mono. Otherwise the transfer is easy to live with—a little thin, perhaps, but the ear easily adjusts. There’s a little distortion in the loudest passages, but it’s nothing to worry about…
If de los Angeles in Bohème still has the power to convince me, has this version of Suor [Angelica] converted me? Her performance in particular was met with superlatives in 1957—even those who had not been convinced by her Butterfly were won over—and those superlatives are thoroughly deserved. It’s largely thanks to her that this recording just avoids the sentimentality which lies just below the surface. When, having bidden farewell to her sisters, Angelica’s thoughts turn to suicide—La grazia è discesa dal cielo (track 19)—and she greets the poisonous flowers as her friends, amici fiori, it’s perilously easy to make the portrayal sound mawkish. It’s not that de los Angeles plays down the emotion, she somehow contrives to let us hear it just below the surface without over-emphasis.
Fedora Barbieri as the Princess, Angelica’s aunt, offers the perfect vocal contrast. If anything, she’s just a little too imperious and unyielding. We never feel, as the Naxos summary implies, that she is almost about to soften in Or son due anni (track 16). The other roles are well sung, with some of the singers in multiple parts, and the Rome Opera House Chorus and Orchestra give of their best under Maestro Serafin.
Back in 1957, the original recording on ALP1577 cost more than £2—equivalent to well over £40 in current values. To have it now for a small fraction of that cost is largesse indeed. There’s no libretto, but the text is readily available online, in Italian and translation.
This is a valuable addition to the Naxos series of historical Great Opera Recordings. It may not have persuaded me to place Suor Angelica in the front rank of Puccini operas, but it easily merits an important place in the catalogue—I seriously considered nominating it my Bargain of the Month.
Don’t forget that Naxos also have some modern recordings of Puccini which are well worth considering; there are no big names and none of them would be first choice, but they all offer very acceptable budget-price alternatives. Madama Butterfly (8.660078–79, conducted by Günter Neuhold, also available in 3-CD Opera Plus format, 8.660910–12 [a different recording conducted by Alexander Rahbari – Ed.]) even restores some valuable music from the 1904 original. Rahbari’s accounts of Manon Lescaut (8.660019–20), Tosca (8.660001–02) and Butterfly (8.660015–16 [the Rahbari recording – Ed.]) are also well worth considering.