Though Puccini’s attempt at Viennese operetta was a great success at its premiere in Monte Carlo, it failed to excite the Italian public, garnering disappointing reviews at its first Italian performance in Bologna and going down even less well with critics when it reached the Teatro dal Verme in Milan. Consequently it never quite achieved the popularity of La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly or Turandot, let alone Manon Lescaut, La Fanciulla del West or even Il Trittico, though this recording and the production which followed it at Covent Garden (with the same two leads) went a long way to changing that and it is performed much more often now than it once was.
Although there had been two previous recordings, one with Anna Moffo as Magda and another with Te Kanawa and Domingo in the two leading roles, both excellent in their own way, this one swept the board and won the prestigious Gramophone Record of the Year award, along with a plethora of others. What principally sets it apart from those previous recordings is the superb conducting of Antonio Pappano and the playing of the London Symphony Orchestra at the top of their form.
It also has both Gheorghiu and Alagna, at the height of their game, in roles which were ideal for themmuch more specific in their responses to the text and drama than the somewhat generalised Domingo and Te Kanawa, more vocally glamorous than Moffo and Baroni. We also have a nicely contrasted secondary couple in Inva Mula and Wiliam Mateuzzi.
The recording also adds a new entrance aria for Ruggero, based on a song by Puccini (Morire?), which is included as an appendix. The opera being rather short, EMI also included excerpts from Puccini’s first opera Le Villi, which whet the appetite and only make you wish they’d recorded the whole thing.
It is a charming if slight work and this gorgeous recording definitely takes the palm as the best to be had. Highly recommended.