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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)

Madam Butterfly (in English)
Cheryl Barker (Cio-Cio-San), Jean Rigby (Suzuki), Paul Charles Clarke (Pinkerton), Gregory Yurisch (Sharpless), Stuart Kale (Goro), Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra/Yves Abel
Recorded Blackheath Halls, London, 13-17.12.2000
CHANDOS CHAN 3070 (2) [2 CDs, 64’37", 72’33"]

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As one who speaks Puccini’s native Italian every day of his life I was inclined to be a bit sniffy about this at first, and on principle I do feel that operas should be performed in their original language. But I still have vivid memories of my early encounters with opera, thanks to the "Opera for All" company that toured the provinces with just piano accompaniment and everything sung in English. I remember in particular a "Figaro" and a "Traviata" and an "Italian Girl in Algiers", and I wonder what I would have made of them if, as a young boy barely in my teens, I had seen them instead in a big opera house in a language I didn’t understand. So maybe the case is not so clear-cut after all, though I have to say I remember from a few years later a "Twilight of the Gods" from the ENO on tour (or maybe it was still the Sadler’s Wells at the time) in which the only word I understood from beginning to end was "Brunnhilde" (Goodall wasn’t the conductor).

Blood is thicker than water, they say, and somehow I found it both a moving and an involving experience to hear the opera in my own language, not least because it is so well and so believably done.

From the start it was evident that it was going to be exceptionally well conducted. Abel (a Canadian whom I had not heard before but who we will surely hear plenty of in the future) manages to keep the fullest textures light and transparent, but with power when needed. He knows how to sink into a Puccinian melody, how to bring out Puccini’s sweetness without indulging it, and above all how to catch the ebb and flow of Puccini’s tensions, so that the music somehow envelops the listener. I haven’t heard Puccini-conducting like this since Gavazzeni laid down his baton.

The singers are united in apparently setting aside memories of the opera in its original language and singing it as if it had been written like this. Words and phrases are ideally weighted and phrased so as to convey both meaning and character. The first to impress me was Gregory Yurisch (who sounds as much of a native English speaker as the rest), a rich-voiced Sharpless. Paul Charles Clarke is a pure tenor, without that baritonal support favoured by the majority of Italianate tenors today (more of a first-period Carreras than a Domingo, shall we say). Though his timbre sometimes seemed a little thin it never lacks quality and he finds power too, and even convinces us that he feels a modicum of regret at the revolting thing he has done.

Cheryl Barker’s voice has an almost mezzo quality in the lower range which made her seem a little old-sounding at first, and some of her vibrato on the high notes seemed to be heading towards the squally (this again near the beginning). But her "Un bel dì" (sorry, "One fine day") is most beautifully sung and expressed, and thereafter she held me effortlessly, for she shows great involvement and sympathy for both Butterfly’s wretched plight and also for her fierce native pride. This is a real dramatic portrayal, no mere sing-through.

Jean Rigby is a fairly heavy-toned mezzo, but again, she makes the most of her dramatic moments in the last act. All the smaller parts make their mark.

This is opera in English at its best, a real team production which goes beyond the sum of its parts to show that a clutch of international stars is not the only, or even the best, way to produce a truthful and dramatic evening at the theatre. In place of their usually rather reverberant, brassy sound, Chandos have provided a recording of great refinement though you need to play it as loudly as you dare to get a really full body to the big moments. A libretto in English is provided and, disarmingly, the notes and synopsis are translated into French, German and even Italian, though anticipated sales of Puccini in English to native Italians must be fairly small. Yet in all truth they could do far worse. Only the very elite of the "authentic" Butterflies can actually boast a finer overall performance.

Christopher Howell


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