Puccini Symphonic Suites Rizzi Signum SIGCD778

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly: symphonic suite (ed. Carlo Rizzi)
Tosca: symphonic suite (ed. Carlo Rizzi)
Preludio sinfonico
Preludio sinfonico (original version, 1882)
Capriccio sinfonico (1883)
Welsh National Opera Orchestra/Carlo Rizzi
rec. 2022, Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Signum Classics SIGCD778

The central programme of this disc consists of two substantial orchestral suites arranged by Carlo Rizzi from Puccini’s operas Madam Butterfly and Tosca. The idea of presenting operas without voices is not, of course, totally new; back in the 1970s a number of such recordings appeared. The singers’ contributions were shunned and substituted with orchestral instruments, which seemed to satisfy the not-inconsiderable number of classical audiences who find themselves allergic to the human voice, especially as presented on the operatic stage. And of course many composers have also made it a practice to extract orchestral music from their operatic scores to provide suites for orchestral performances in concert; for many years the operas of Rimsky-Korsakov, for example, whilst almost unknown in their stage guise outside Russia, were frequently represented by such concert suites both in live performance and on records. Carlo Rizzi in his booklet note acknowledges his debt to the suite from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, which he conducted in a concert some years ago. In these Puccini arrangements, he has been even more circumspect in avoiding any attempt to supply ‘missing’ vocal lines with instrumental equivalents.

In fact, the well-known Strauss suite from Rosenkavalier does not even appear to have been the work of Strauss himself; although its exact provenance is unclear, Michael Kennedy suggested it may have been the work of the conductor Artur Rodziński. At all events, it does not prove precisely an ideal model for an arranger seeking to encapsulate an opera in a ‘symphonic suite’, leaping as it does almost at random from one purple passage to another. It ends not in the same manner as the original opera, but with a jarring and abrupt return to the music for Och’s earlier exit and a banal coda which bears no resemblance to anything that Strauss wrote at all. Rizzi does considerably better than that; both of the suites on the disc at least begin and end with the music that Puccini wrote for that purpose in the originating operas. But at the same time, Rizzi cannot avoid the sheer sense of bewilderment that must assail any listener who is familiar with the original scores. For example, when the funereal music that leads in Tosca to the execution of Cavaradossi is interrupted at the moment of climax. Just when the fusillade of the firing squad should ring out, there is a sudden interruption of the music for the comic sacristan two Acts previously. The effect of this on anybody knowing the music already cannot fail to elicit laughter, which may well be what Rizzi wants; otherwise it is simply bizarre. Some of the other elisions from one passage to another are similarly startling; the sudden eruption in Madam Butterfly of the joyous dawn music (complete with birdsong) jars horribly after the heartbreaking moments of betrayal and loss that precede them.

Perhaps better continuity might have been obtained if the music in each of the suites had proceeded through the scores in chronological order, which would have served to preserve the dramatic niceties. But the juxtaposition in Butterfly of the love music from Act Two followed by the duet from Act One works well in purely musical – that is, symphonic – terms; and if we regard these suites as concert items divorced from their original context, they work well. Even so, it seems odd that two lengthy purely orchestral sections of the operatic scores – the dawn music over Rome from Tosca, and the night interlude before the distant sailors’ cries which opens the final scene of Madam Butterfly – are totally missing from these confections. The former of these would surely have made a better introduction to the melody of E lucevan le stelle, which here steals in on solo clarinet in the guise in which operatically it will accompany the opening lines of the singer with comparatively little setting of the atmosphere. At the same time, one has to admire the skill with which Rizzi links his selected excerpts, with the modulations flowing from one passage to another with smoothness and understanding. Only very occasionally do these cause concern, and as I have observed, this may well arise from the foiled expectations of the experienced listener; someone coming fresh to these scores may well find the links perfectly natural. There are also occasionally real advantages, as when an orchestral figure in the accompaniment which is customarily submerged beneath the vocal line emerges blinking into the limelight. That is particularly true in such a delicate score as Butterfly, with its delicate touches of woodwind colouring. On the other hand, we could have done with some deeper bells (and cannon shots) in the excerpt from the Te Deum in Tosca; this is one of those instances where wicked modern electronics can come to the rescue with most satisfactory effects.

One might perhaps have expected that Rizzi would round out this recording with his own ‘trittico’ including a similar suite from La Bohème, but instead we are given a brief reminiscence of that score with the appearing of the opening motif from the opera in Puccini’s earlier Capriccio sinfonico written specifically for orchestra and which has made occasional appearances in the concert hall and on record over the years. It is well played here, with spruce attention to detail, and the orchestral playing sounds excellent in the resonant acoustic of Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall (in the same building as the Welsh National Opera’s own headquarters). One would hope that future recordings could be scheduled for this same venue.

The Preludio sinfonico is here given two performances, one in the original version written in 1882 and another in a later undated revision where Puccini pruned a couple of minutes of music in the interest of greater concision. So far as I am aware, previous recordings of the score have employed the revised version, and it is interesting to hear the original; the booklet states that all three of the orchestral scores here are given in editions supervised by Carlo Rizzi, although it is not made clear to what extent he has made modifications.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable wallow, which is, after all, I am sure, what the performers would wish us to enjoy. Hopefully, too, it may herald a new cycle of recordings by the Welsh National Opera, who have been somewhat neglected by the companies in recent years. The orchestra remains on excellent form, responding well to their former music director, and the recording is well managed. The booklet contains a one-page introduction from the conductor/arranger and a four-page essay by Roger Parker, although the insertion of session photographs in the middle of paragraphs can make these somewhat confusing to read.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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