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`The Unknown Puccini': On New Disc, Domingo Sings Songs That Reveal the Man and His Music

MENTION the name ``Puccini,'' and immediately operas such as ``La Boh`eme'' and ``Madama Butterfly'' spring to mind. It's less often recalled, however, that the great romantic composer also wrote non-operatic songs for voice and piano.

Whether one is an ardent fan of Puccini's operas or a complete newcomer to his music, listening to the new recording ``The Unknown Puccini'' will heighten appreciation of his talents - and inevitably lead to further or deeper investigation of his famous stage works.

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In the first-ever comprehensive collection, tenor Pl'acido Domingo and pianist Julius Rudel perform the 15 songs Puccini wrote over the course of his lifetime. While having nowhere near the historical impact of Schubert's volume of songs or of Richard Strauss's or Gabriel Faur'e's (two of Puccini's contemporaries), these works open the window wider upon the composer's creative journey and many events of his personal life.

The recording (CBS Masterworks, MT-44981, cassette, CD) presents the songs in chronological order, ranging from Puccini's student compositions to works written in his 60s, and includes four world premi`eres.

``You still get a real sense of the man and his music,'' says musicologist Michael Kaye, who was responsible for digging up the scores and painstakingly editing them. ``This is the passionate Puccini, the dramatic Puccini, and the lyrical.''

``The Unknown Puccini'' is the culmination of Mr. Kaye's 10-year study into the history of each song, some of which have been only lightly touched upon by past biographers. Two years ago, the Oxford University Press published Kaye's book (of the same title), which this fall won the Illica Prize, an Italian award usually given to singers of Puccini's works. The book includes the full scores, making it a useful companion to the recording.

Those unfamiliar with Puccini's music will appreciate the ``total accessibility'' of the songs, explains Kaye. An example is the hauntingly gorgeous ``Ad una morta!,'' which mourns the loss of a beloved woman, perhaps Puccini's own mother. On the lighter side, ``Storiella d'amore'' tells the melodramatic story of two lovers who are reading a book, but quickly become entranced with each other, drop the book, and passionately embrace. Domingo sings the tripping melody with humorous zeal.

``Puccini's music has the power to capture anyone's musical imagination,'' remarks Kaye.

For Puccini enthusiasts, the recording shows interesting links between the songs and the composer's operas. For example, the song ``Sole e amore'' (1888) forms the basis for the famous Act III quartet in ``La Boh`eme,'' and ``Mentia l'avviso'' (1883) becomes the well-known tenor aria ``Donna non vidi mai'' in ``Manon Lescaut.'' These self-borrowings, explains Kaye, while not profound, can be fascinating to opera fans.

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Why didn't Puccini write more of these songs?

``He really felt his genius could best be heard in the theater,'' says Kaye. The songs he did write (and somewhat reluctantly) were for school assignments, for friends, or requested of him for special occasions. ``Avanti Urania!'' marked the acquisition of the ex-Queen Mary steamship by his patron, the Marchese Ginori-Lisci, and its launching under the Italian flag as Urania. Also, Puccini was an avid hunter and dedicated his song ``Inno a Diana'' to all Italian hunters.

One of the most moving songs on the recording is ``Morire?'' (``To Die?''), which Puccini wrote during World War I when he felt devastated over the events and unable to compose. The intensely romantic song, composed to a poem by Giuseppe Adami, a playwright and future biographer of Puccini, reflects Puccini's deep patriotism. Domingo lifts the song into the realm of high drama. -30-{et

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