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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)
Madama Butterfly (1904)
Victoria de los Angeles (soprano) – Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San); Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor) – B.F.Pinkerton; Anna Maria Canali (mezzo) – Suzuki; Tito Gobbi (baritone) – Sharpless; Renato Ercolani (tenor) – Goro; Maria Huder (mezzo) – Kate Pinkerton; Arturo la Porta (bass-baritone) – Prince Yamadori / Imperial Commissioner / Registrar; Bruno Sbalchiero (bass) – The Rome Opera House Chorus and Orchestra/Gianandrea Gavazzeni
rec. Teatro dell’Opera, Rome, 26-31 July, 2-6, 8-9, 11, 23 August 1954
NAXOS 8.111291-2 [69:16 + 57:12]
Experience Classicsonline

‘When I was twenty-one, it was a very good year.’ The line comes from Frank Sinatra’s concept album ‘September of my years’ but adding a decade to the age it could just as well have been sung by Victoria de los Angeles. 1954, when this Madama Butterfly was recorded, was a very good year for her and it is hard to imagine the role more lovingly performed. Not only is the beauty of the voice so striking but the whole personification is so endearing. For once we also encounter a Cio-Cio-San who might be fifteen – as she should be in the first act – with the possible exception of Toti Dal Monte, who recorded the role, also in Rome, in 1939 with Beniamino Gigli as Pinkerton. Just listen to her first entrance together with the chorus (CD 1 tr. 4) or her solo Ieri son salita (a couple of minutes into CD 1 tr.7). No one, to my mind, has ever been so lovely, not even Mirella Freni on the strongly recommendable Decca recording with Karajan. She is superb in the long duet that ends act I and, when three years older in act II, Un bel di vedremo is unsurpassed on records. Her Flower Duet with Suzuki is also lovely, even though it is marred by some distortion, and the finale goes directly to the heart. She re-recorded the opera in stereo five years later with Björling as Pinkerton but it is this first version that is the supreme achievement.

And she is not the only reason to acquire the set. 1954 was a very good year also for Giuseppe Di Stefano. I have listened to a lot of him lately, both in isolated arias and complete recordings and he has often been very good but here he surpasses himself. He is vital and expressive, as always, and he is light and warm-toned. In fact I fully understand why poor Cio-Cio-San gets trapped. He can’t quite erase the memory of Bergonzi in the act I finale on either of his recordings – with Tebaldi/Serafin and Scotto/Barbirolli – but he runs him fairly close. Tito Gobbi as Sharpless is luxury casting but he manages to make a personality of this stuffed shirt and Anna Maria Canali is an excellent Suzuki. Renato Ercolani is a vivid and expressive Goro and the rest of the cast is fully up to the requirements.

A further asset is the vital conducting by Gianandrea Gavazzeni in his first opera recording. There is rhythmic resilience in his reading and he is far preferable to the dull Santini on Los Angeles’s later recording. What lets this production down is the recording. Besides some distortion there are extraneous noises and some clumsy edits, all of it emanating from the original master tapes. But none of these defects should deter readers from acquiring this set. For more modern sound and singing of comparable quality, choose Serafin with Tebaldi and Bergonzi (Decca), Barbirolli with Scotto and Bergonzi (EMI) or Karajan with Freni and Pavarotti (also Decca) but the present set, especially at its super budget price, should also be in every decent Puccini collection. Good notes by Malcolm Walker and a very detailed synopsis by Keith Anderson.

Göran Forsling



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