This Madama Butterfly is transferred from
Decca LPs, now out of copyright, and comes as a follow-up to Naxosís
recent transfer of Tebaldiís first Bohème which
I reviewed a few months ago. Opinions have been flowing freely
recently in the wake of a US Court ruling in favour of certain
Naxos transfers over which Capitol had claimed copyright and the
record companies themselves are lobbying for an increase to the
50-year copyright period operative in the UK and in Europe generally.
Some have even suggested that, since the company that originally
made the recording had paid for it, it should maintain its exclusive
rights for ever. Others argue on artistic grounds that the original
producer has the original tapes and can thus produce better results
than the likes of Naxos and Pearl (the latter have also issued
this Butterfly), who have to use LP pressings. Well, this
might be a valid point, so letís put the Naxos Butterfly alongside
Deccaís own transfer. Ah, but where is it? As far as I can ascertain,
this recording was last sighted on a pair of Decca Eclipse LPs,
debased by a process euphemistically called "electronically
enhanced stereo". (This is true as far as Europe is concerned;
there seems to be a transfer on the London label available in
the US. Commentators have complained of distortion on the high
notes, which I donít find here). As those-powers-that-be at Decca
have evidently judged this recording to have no commercial potential
these many years, what do they want an extension of the copyright
period for? To keep it under wraps for yet another 25 years? Or
50? Or for ever? In other words, an extension of the copyright
period might have some justification when the original producer
is still making the disc available to the public, but why should
it become merely an instrument for the prevention of public access
to recordings of historical significance? Perhaps a variation
of the law over Public Rights of Way might be applied; just as
a Public Right of Way can cease to be so if it is demonstrable
that no member of the public has attempted to use it for a certain
period, recording companies could lose their rights after 50 years
(or even sooner?) if it is demonstrable that they have not made
the recording publicly available for (say) at least five years
of the preceding ten. This would also act as an incentive to the
companies to reissue anything of value as the expiry date approaches,
to avoid losing it. (But de facto, this system operates
already; if Decca had put out a bargain CD transfer of this Butterfly
two or three years ago, would Naxos or Pearl thought it worth
their while to issue alternative versions?).
Turning now to the artistic question, access
to the original master tapes is clearly an advantage, but it still
depends on what you do with them, always supposing they are in
a good state (tapes deteriorate and develop print-through, so
it is possible to imagine cases where a pristine LP would be better).
Presumably Decca would not inflict "electronically enhanced
stereo" on them any more, but some of their own transfers
(such as the 1954 Kleiber Rosenkavalier) seem to have tried
too hard to find upper frequencies that just arenít there, producing
the aural effect of a paint-stripper. In this case, the musicality
of a Mark Obert-Thorn or a Ward Marston working with good copies
of the LP is much to be preferred and I wonder if they are making
plans for Rosenkavalier when it enters the public domain?
Better still, maybe, would be for Decca to hire Mark Obert-Thorn
or Ward Marston to work with the original tapes, but evidently
they think otherwise.
Anyway, here we have a recording in the fine
acoustic of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome, in which the
voices reproduce well and naturally. The orchestra is slightly
backward and the upper strings sound thin but I found this no
bar to enjoyment.
Renata Tebaldi has been considered, over the
years (both here and in her 1958 stereo remake) rather too tough
and bossy-sounding for the fragile little Japanese heroine. The
trouble is, Puccini just didnít write for fragile, evanescent
voices. Furthermore, while Butterfly may seem a naïve, clueless
little thing at the start, she grows in strength and resolve as
she prepares for the final tragedy. The sort of singer who might
sound suitably young and fragile in the opening exchanges will
be swamped by the tenor in the love duet and will simply not have
the resources for the rest of the opera which needs heft, heft
and heft again. Clearly this was not a problem for Tebaldi and
she rises to every climax with opulent, unforced tone. But, if
this implies a lack of tenderness, I donít really agree. Itís
true that she sings "The Japanese gods are lazy and obese"
with the air of one whoíd like to get hold of them and bang their
silly heads together, and I didnít find her especially affecting
in "Un bel dì", but many, many of the tender
passages, sometimes just a simple phrase here or there, are illuminated
by her exquisite soft singing. Iím inclined to think that you
wonít find a better sung Butterfly anywhere (though a comparison
with the longish extract from Leontyne Priceís 1964 recording
which recently surfaced in a double CD pack of that singerís Puccini
and Strauss suggests that at least one may be its equal), and
as a portrayal it has a lot in its favour.
Giuseppe Campora (b.1923) appeared regularly
at the Met between 1955 and 1965. He sings naturally and musically,
with no forcing of his attractive, lightish voice at climaxes.
Thus far, so good, but I think one wants a little more, and nothing
he does remains in the memory. Pinkerton is never going to be
an attractive character, but that doesnít mean he has to be faceless.
Richard Tucker, alongside Price, has plenty of character, although
he sounds a bit old for the part. I donít have the 1958 Tebaldi
to hand but the presence of Carlo Bergonzi sounds promising.
The Sharpless, Giovanni Inghilleri (1894-1959),
had a long career behind him (he had recorded Amonasro in 1928)
and has patches of unsteadiness, but he "uses" his elderly
sound creatively to make an attractive character of the Consul.
I donít know why it was thought necessary to bring in a Suzuki
from Montgomery, Alabama when plenty of Italians were at hand
(Giulietta Simionato recorded for Decca in this same period; in
1958 Fiorenza Cossotto took the role); in the event Nell Rankin
sings well enough though her Italian is slightly thick-sounding.
However, the only member of the cast that I found actually inadequate
was Melchiorre Luise (1899-1967) who offers a very wooden Prince
Yamadori (but itís a tiny role).
When reviewing Bohème I felt that
Alberto Erede was an underrated conductor and here again he shows
a complete understanding of Puccinian ebb and flow. Tempi are
quite swift, but with much flexibility and breathing space within
them; the singers are never pressed and the music always flows
naturally. He doesnít demand the ultimate in precision but the
Santa Cecilia Orchestra, Italyís best at the time, has all the
right colours and some very sweet-sounding strings. Since then
a varied assortment of "greats" have set down their
thoughts on Puccini conducting, often with a heavy hand. Tebaldiís
1958 recording was conducted by Tullio Serafin.
So all-in-all this set could still be a good
choice for a cheap way of getting to know the opera; great singing
from Tebaldi, adequate singing, sometimes more, from the others
and an excellent conductor. Tebaldi fans will be glad to have
it and will be pleased to have the four arias from 1949 as a makeweight.
The Gounod "Jewel Song" is perhaps the most interesting
in retrospect, since it shows that the young Tebaldi could sing
as a light and frothy operetta soprano; a few years later I doubt
if she could have sung it again this way. There is a good presentation
from Malcolm Walker, including biographical notes on the singers
and conductor; no libretto but a quite detailed synopsis.