There is no shortage of recordings of Madama Butterfly,
vintage as well as of more recent date. Even so, the companies
want to get the most out of Puccini year, so here comes another
version, recorded live at Torre del Lago, where Puccini settled
in 1891 and to which he always returned. That the performances
are held outdoors can be heard from the beginning. It is evident
from a certain lack of resonance. The orchestra sounds a bit undernourished,
especially in the string department, so important in this opera.
Whether this is due to the acoustics, the recording balance or
the general standard of the players is hard to tell but elsewhere
there is no lack of power and thrust. The applause sounds a bit
lame - again, I believe, due to the outdoor conditions. There
are stage noises but these are not particularly disturbing. Placido
Domingo holds things together well in a performance that stresses
the emotional side of the work – and rightly so. However some
tempos are dangerously slow, especially in the final scene, and
it is primarily thanks to Daniela Dessi’s deeply involved reading
of the title role that the performance maintains momentum.
Daniela Dessi is
truly endearing from her first entrance through to the bitter
end. Initially her vibrato can be something of a nuisance but
by degrees her voice settles and she finds a girlish timbre
that makes her reading irresistible. There are patches of unsteadiness
but by and large hers is an emotionally charged and psychologically
believable reading. The duet that ends act I is sensitively
sung with plenty of nuance. Un bel di vedremo in act
II is the high-spot it should be and her encounter with Sharpless
later in the act is touching in its innocence.
The rest of the
cast are not quite on this level. Both Fabio Armiliato and Juan
Pons are rather strained to begin with - Armiliato’s tone rather
devoid of lustre and Pons is blustery. Armiliato, inspired by
Dessi’s lovely Butterfly, improves and makes a subtle reading
of his role. His despair in the last act is tangible. His tone
remains dryish, however, and he reminds me of José Carreras’s
worn delivery in his middle-to-late career. When I heard Armiliato
in Vienna a couple of years before this recording there was
much more sheen in his singing.
Juan Pons, who was
approaching 60 at the time, has a disturbing vibrato at forte
but he manages to scale down and be soft and caring when he
reads the letter from Pinkerton to Madama Butterfly.
The supporting cast
is variable with an oily Goro who acts well and rather unattractive
singing by Yamadori and Bonzo, not wholly inappropriate of course.
There is no libretto
but a brief synopsis. Serafin and Karajan on Decca and Barbirolli
on EMI remain the recommended versions. If one accepts the rather
primitive mono sound, Gavazzeni (now on Naxos) with Victoria
de los Angeles in radiant form, is hard to beat. The present
set is of interest for Daniela Dessi’s deeply probing reading
of the title role.