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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly

Renata Tebaldi (Madama Butterfly), Giuseppe Campora (Pinkerton), Nell Rankin (Suzuki), Giovanni Inghilleri (Sharpless), Piero de Palma (Goro), Gianna Diozzi (Kate Pinkerton), Melchiorre Luise (Prince Yamadori), Fernando Corena (the Bonze), Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome/Alberto Erede
Recorded in the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome, 19th-26th July 1951
PUCCINI

Manon Lescaut: In quelle trine morbide
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Il Trovatore: Tacea la notte
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

Faust: Il était un roi de Thulé, Jewel Song (sung in Italian)
Renata Tebaldi (soprano), Suisse Romande Orchestra/Alberto Erede
Recorded in Geneva, 21st (Verdi) and 22nd November 1949
Transferred by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110254-55 [72:25+73:58]

 

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 Some have even suggested that, since the company that originally made the recording had paid for it, it should maintain its exclusive rights for ever.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.

Christopher Howell

 



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