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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)
Madama Butterfly (1904)
Leontyne Price (soprano) – Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San); Rosalind Elias (mezzo) – Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant; Richard Tucker (tenor) – B.F. Pinkerton, Lieutenant in the United States Navy; Anna di Stasio (mezzo) – Kate Pinkerton, his American wife; Philip Maero (baritone) – Sharpless, United States Consul at Nagasaki; Piero de Palma (tenor) – Goro, a marriage broker; Robert Kerns (baritone) – Prince Yamadori, suitor for Cio-Cio-San; Virgilio Carbonari (bass) – The Bonze, Cio-Cio-San’s uncle; Arturo La Porta (baritone) – Imperial Commissioner; Mario Rinaudo (bass) – The Registrar; Leo Pudis (bass) – Yakuside, the uncle; Fernanda Cadoni (mezzo) – Mother of Cio-Cio-San; Gianna Lollini (soprano) – The Aunt; Silvia Bertona (soprano) – The Cousin
RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. 10–20 July 1962, RCA Italiana Studios, Rome
SONY BMG 82876 82622 2 [60:45 + 68:44]

One of the first discs I reviewed for Musicweb about two years ago was a Verdi/Puccini recital with Leontyne Price – her very first actually – recorded in 1960, two years before this complete Butterfly. The disc included the two Butterfly arias, which have been of particular importance to me since they were on an EP I bought very early in my record-collecting career. They became the yardstick for me as far as Madama Butterfly goes. Much water has flown under the bridges of Dalälven since then and many versions of the arias have gathered on my bending record shelves, many of them marvellous readings, interpretatively and vocally, but Price’s voice is for ever associated with this music. I have refreshed my memory by listening again to these tracks. I was curious – and a bit sceptical – as to her ability to give a believable portrait of the teenaged Cio-Cio-San, Price being more at home with dramatic Toscas, Leonoras, Aidas, Carmens and Amelias. Other sopranos of her formidable calibre have made glorious Cio-Cio-Sans, notably Tebaldi, but she never sounded girlish enough, unable obviously to scale down her large instrument. Price does this admirably and time and again I made comments about that in my notes. There are long stretches of wonderful, light-toned singing. While I can hardly imagine Price on stage looking properly girlish, the sonic image is that of a slender little Japanese girl. Of course Puccini has given any Butterfly an impossible task to carry this portrait consistently, since the outlay and orchestration of the set-pieces require a full-toned soprano. In the great love duet that concludes the first act, Price changes gear – switches on the turbo – and gives Tucker’s Pinkerton a run for his money. In a somewhat laboured metaphor she suddenly gains ten years in age. We have to be happy about that since it ensures a really glorious duet. And much of it is still sung with the utmost sensitivity as are her solos in the second act.
Richard Tucker also turns in a reading of great sensitivity, making Pinkerton a much more sympathetic character than he is but also making it easier to understand that Butterfly falls for him. The opening of the love duet proper, Viene la sera (CD1 tr. 13) is mellifluous and affectionate. In this he almost challenges Nicolai Gedda on the Callas recording. Tucker however has more power and ardour than the young Gedda could muster and so makes the duet a more even affair than the Gedda-Callas, where the soprano tends to overshadow the tenor. The best Butterfly, to my mind, is still Victoria de los Angeles and the matching of voices is even more perfect there. Jussi Björling, recorded less than a year before his untimely death at 49, and already marked by his illness, is less ardent and glowing than he was three years earlier on that legendary Bohème with de los Angeles. Anyway Tucker is here just as good as on the Bohème with Moffo recently enthusiastically welcomed by me (review) and avoids sentimentalizing the music.
This opera is so much dominated by its heroine that even Pinkerton is more or less a secondary character, but to make it a success a star tenor is needed for the first act. The other characters can almost be seen as comprimarios but any wise producer still casts them with good singers and in the main that is the case here too. The weakest member is Philip Maero as Sharpless. He has a big enough voice but is unsubtle and grey-toned. He improves temporarily in the second act and makes more of a character of the Consul. However he completely misses the opportunity to make something memorable of Io so che alle sue pene (CD2 tr. 13), a “dream phrase” for a sonorous and sweet-toned baritone. The young Robert Kerns here sings Prince Yamadori with darkish tone and confidence. A dozen years later he was upgraded to Sharpless on Karajan’s famous Butterfly with Freni and Pavarotti. In this set he could have been entrusted the part even here. Rosalind Elias is luxury casting as Suzuki. As the marriage broker Goro, Piero de Palma, the king of comprimario tenors, delivers another sharply-etched portrait.
So far I have said nothing about the conducting. This may well to some listeners be the crucial deciding factor. Erich Leinsdorf, once assistant to Toscanini, has never been known as a heart-on-the-sleeve conductor, rather coldly analytical and often a stickler for fastish tempos. The opening orchestral introduction is here unusually aggressive, almost forbidding. The actual sound of the orchestra is raw and unsubtle, making me initially suspect that the recording is to blame. As it turns out the general sound picture is of RCA Victor’s usual well-defined but not particularly warm nature. The three-channel SACD mode enhances the analytical character of the reading. Since 1954 RCA had been recording at the Rome Opera House with the house orchestra. The present production marked the company’s move to their newly built RCA Italiana Studios and their own opera orchestra. Many glorious recordings were to be made there during the years to come. Producer Richard Mohr gives vivid testimony to the recording procedure which also included searching out the best available percussion instruments to give full weight to Puccini’s delicate oriental instrumentation. The Japanese bells, to mention just one detail, were nowhere to be found in Europe and were borrowed from the Metropolitan Opera. They turned out to be a set made specially for the first Butterfly performance there in 1907. These and lots of other details are vividly realised in this recording. They create an authentic atmosphere.
Those wanting most of all surging rubatos and string tone dripping with treacle will probably be disappointed. Those who, like me, feel that Puccini in places over-eggs the cake with icing, will feel gratitude to Leinsdorf for his more objective view. He is often enough sensitive to nuances and the need of the singers to expand a phrase but in general he keeps the proceedings on a tight rein.
The booklet has, besides Richard Mohr’s notes on the recording, an essay on “The Failure and Success of Butterfly” by George R. Marek. There’s also a synopsis while the libretto can be downloaded from Sony BMG’s website.
For the most individual reading of the title role, Maria Callas is forever unsurpassed. For the loveliest Cio-Cio-San Victoria de los Angeles is hard to beat. For an overwhelming total experience with glowing Vienna Philharmonic strings Karajan’s remake with Freni and Pavarotti is hors concours. However with Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker in top form and with Leinsdorf’s efficient and unsentimental conducting, the present version, now at budget price, is a worthy addition to anyone’s collection of Butterflies.
Göran Forsling


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