Barker, Bonynge and the delicate art of Recording Puccini
Cheryl Barker has sung Cio-Cio-San in so many productions, it is virtually the strikingly beautiful Australian soprano's calling card. Puccini is the core of her repertoire, which will be extended when she sings her first Tosca for English National Opera in November. Yes, Barker thought she knew Puccini pretty well.
Yet last August, in Melbourne, she heard his music as never before.
London-based Barker was back in Australia to record Puccini=Passion, for the niche-marketed Melba label. The disc was made possible by sponsorship of the Bank of Melbourne and the personal interest of its CEO, Ann Sherry.
For once Barker was not above but in the midst of the orchestra.
"You suddenly hear the little nuances, the themes from other parts of the opera that are brought out in the aria", she said. "It's wonderful. I had a new respect for Puccini after listening to the orchestration."
Over five days at the Australian National Academy of Music in South Melbourne, Barker recorded 19 items.
Knowing that a common complaint about recital discs is the lack of interpretive differentiation, I asked her how she distinguished between characters vocally.
"I just sang it the only way to sing it", she explained. "The colour of the voice is the best way to differentiate between the characters and Puccini's often done it. There's a difference between Musetta's music and Mimi's music: Musetta's is much sexier and more voluptuous than Mimi's. You think of Mimi as a sweet character, whereas you never think of Musetta as sweet. Liu is subservient, whereas Tosca is strong and independent. It's just a case of singing it the way it was written."
Nevertheless, as take followed take and Barker immersed herself in each role, her performances became increasingly animated. Barker is a natural actress, as opera lovers who have seen her on stage will confirm. For her, gesture and expression are indivisible from vocal colour.
This was to be the third disc in Melba's internationally-acclaimed Richard Bonynge Edition.
Australia's highest-profile operatic conductor, white-haired, casually dressed, yet immaculate, oversaw a surprisingly democratic recording process. Having, as he explained later, expressed his desires earlier in the planning stages, he seemed content to allow Orchestra Victoria concertmaster Jo Beaumont or producer Maria Vandamme to dictate the need for fresh takes.
I queried his placidity at the sessions. he smiled. "When I was younger I could fight with people, but not now. Besides, why should I? This orchestra are very nice people and very flexible."
Bonynge has worked in the world's major recording venues, for companies with huge resources and big budgets. By comparison, the Melba set-up, a digital desk in an ante-room, appeared, to the untrained eye, put together on a shoe-string.Yet Bonynge was unstinting in his praise.
"Oh, but let me tell you this is a much better team than I often work for", he admonished me. "The standards here - Maria Vandamme - I think she's fantastic and she's got a very good engineer there."