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Superficial pleasures

A te, Puccini (Signum)

Artillery Row


Giacomo Puccini died 100 years ago of throat cancer, on November 29, 1924. Almost every opera he wrote was an instant hit, so he hardly bothered to write anything else — other than some church music, a string quartet and a fistful of drawing-room songs that get little attention. I don’t think I have seen a complete album of them before.

His thumbprint is recognisable throughout. A “Storiella d’amore” in his early 20s sounds like a sketch for a Mimi aria in La Bohème a decade later. The title song, “A te”, written when he was just 16, sounds like chippings off Verdi’s woodpile. “Avanti, Urania” belongs more to Tosca mode. The songs, with piano accompaniment, are mildly enjoyable, borderline trivial. The last track, “Melanconia” aims for psychological profundity and misses by a country mile. Puccini had many assets but depth, spirituality and intellect were not prominent in his creative portfolio.

Accompanied by Vincenzo Scalera, the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu milks these miniatures for all — and more than — they have got. The last time she sang in London, Gheorghiu was savaged in the Times for singing her first three arias some way out of tune with the orchestra. Here there is no problem with intonation (unless it was digitally corrected). Gheorghiu’s instrument is still formidable and pleasurable, notwithstanding a tendency to shrillness in the upper storeys. I’d give the producer Anna Barry a cover credit for keeping emotional overflow in check and letting Gheorghiu remind us how she sounded at her abundant best.

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