In his famous biography of Puccini, first published fifty years ago, the late Mosco Carner related the composer's depiction of women in his operas to a supposed mother fixation caused by his being brought up by a strong mother and four older sisters after his father died when the composer was still a boy; his wife, Elvira, was also a dominating influence. Carner proposed that this is why Puccini punishes the pathetic heroines of the early operas Butterfly, Manon and Boheme by killing them off; the depiction of a strong woman who brings about the death of a weaker heroine in Suor Angelica and Turandot is meant to be another manifestation of this Freudian trait, in Carner's opinion.
Whether or not his psychological analyses are convincing, there's no doubt that Carner's division of the Puccini heroines into different types is a helpful way of approaching these operas. And never more so than in relation to Melanie Diener's new disc (her debut recital CD), Puccini's Heroines, which deals with eight of the mature works plus an aria from the early piece, Le villi. Patience and endurance pay off to the listener when approaching the disc because at her best, Diener makes an excellent interpreter of Puccini. The weight and mettle she brings to Puccini's bigger roles is hugely effective, and her passion is perfect for the repertoire.
Unfortunately, the lighter arias, and particularly the first three tracks, are less suited to her skills. In 'Se come voi piccina io fossi' from Le villi, 'In quelle trine morbide' from Manon Lescaut and 'Donde lieta usci' from La bohème, Diener is just too heavy-handed and a little harsh for these delicate heroines; to a degree, these tracks remind me of Birgit Nilsson's similar problems in the Italian repertoire. Diener's Mimi pales by comparison to her illustrious forbears – Mirella Freni is just superior in every department, I'm afraid – and a tendency to push too much in the Manon aria leads to a loss of pitch at the top, though lower down she is highly effective. The problem of treading on too-familiar terrain makes her 'Vissi d'arte' seem a bit generalised in terms of interpretation – I don't discern Tosca's passionate plea in Diener's delivery of the text – and she has too mature an instrument for the innocent ingénue of Lauretta's aria from Gianni Schicchi, 'O mio babbino caro'.
But the flip side is a sensational 'Un bel dì vedremo', in which Diener's magnificent instrument comes to the fore and allows her to let rip with the kind of power that one dreams of for this role. Butterfly seems such an assertive character in this performance that one can imagine Diener's rendition of the whole opera in the theatre packing quite a punch. 'Senza mamma' from Suor Angelica is almost as good, finding Diener at her most searching and restrained; 'Chi il bel sogno di Doretta' from La rondine is admirably strong, even if I prefer a brighter, more floating sound in this aria; and if Liu's 'Signore, ascolta!' from Turandot has moments of insecure tuning, it also has plenty of pathos about it, which is most attractive. The accompaniment of the City of Prague Philharmonic under Luciano Acocella is exemplary, as is the excellent recording acoustic.
Although not essential listening, then, this budget-priced disc has plenty to recommend it.