> Puccini - Madama Butterfly [JP]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Madama Butterfly (Original 1904 Version)
Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) - Svetlana Katchour
F.B. Pinkerton - Bruce Rankin
Suzuki, servant - Fredrika Brillemburg
Sharpless - Heikki Kilpelainen
Goro - Uwe Eikotter
Kate Pinkerton - Kristen Strejc
Prince Yamadori - Loren Christopher Lang
Bonze - Andreas Haller
Bremen Theatre Chorus; Theo Wiedebusch, Chorus-Master
Bremen Philharmonic State Orchestra/Gunter Neuhold
Recorded at Bremen Theatre, Stuhr, Germany, 15-19 December 1997
Bargain price
NAXOS 8.660078-79 [2CDs: 79.36]

In June 1900, Puccini travelled to London to help with the preparations for the first performance of "Tosca" at Covent Garden. On the recommendation of a friend, he went to the Duke of York’s Theatre to see a new one-act play, "Madame Butterfly", which had been adapted by David Belasco from a short story by John Luther Long. Although the composer did not understand much of Butterfly’s "Japanese" accent, he was much taken by the production, especially the heroine’s silent vigil for Pinkerton. The effect, Puccini later confessed, was like "pouring petrol on an open fire". By March 1901, Puccini had sent his librettist Illica a translation of Long’s story, while assuring him that changes made by Belasco for the play were improvements. Illica started work on the basis of the story, which has distinct differences from the play and, in the end, from the opera. Puccini’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, and Illica were finally convinced of the subject only when they had read an Italian translation of Belasco’s play, which they first saw in June that year. The first part of the libretto reached the composer in October and the completed version the following summer. As in earlier libretti, Illica collaborated with the well-known dramatist Giuseppe Giacosa, the latter responsible for versification of the scenario provided.

Puccini’s work on Madama Butterfly, hampered at first by delays in the completion of the libretto, was further interrupted when the composer was injured in a motoring accident. It was with some difficulty that he was able to complete the orchestration of the opera in time for rehearsals for the premiere at La Scala. In the event 17 February 1904 brought an operatic disaster, with hostile members of the first night audience claiming to find immediate repetitions of La Bohème, and increasing disapproval shown as the work continued. The evocation of the Japanese countryside by the placing of bird-noises in the auditorium inspired members of the audience to add their own farmyard imitations and the performance continued amid uproar. "Madama Butterfly", however was quickly revised from its then two act form (performed here), and staged again three months later on 28th. May 1904 at the Teatro Grande in Brescia to a wildly enthusiastic audience. Following this Puccini himself insisted that future productions should allow him control over casting, a provision that both delayed and ensured the opera’s continued success in Italy and abroad, and a production at the Paris Opéra Comique directed by Albert Carré in December 1906 became the basis for the printed orchestral score, which productions and recordings have followed ever since.

Despite the recording location in Bremen Theatre, there is little or no theatre "atmosphere" in this recording; indeed Naxos’s very well received predecessor recording (8.660015-16) of the opera has more. The opening scene has the orchestra giving a boxy sound, but admittedly one soon becomes used to this. Having said this, the performance is otherwise well up to Naxos’s usual high standard with opera; all the soloists give strong, assured interpretations of their parts, and the sound quality is excellent apart from my caveat at the start of Act 1. Particularly worthy of comment are the dramatic scenes with Butterfly and Pinkerton, and there is some rapturous duet singing. Butterfly’s "Un bel di" made me sit up and listen even more carefully. Svetlana Katchour has a depth of timbre to her voice which makes me think she would do well as a Brünnhilde in The Ring. Whether or not one prefers her to Miriam Gauci in the rival Naxos recording is very much a matter of opinion. Gauci has a much lighter girlish voice, very appealing, but cannot manage the lower register in her part as does Katchour. Bruce Rankin as Pinkerton, Kilpelainen, and Eikotter all acquit themselves well; Brillemberg as Suzuki, however has a similar timbre to Katchour, and it can be difficult to tell the two apart. Brillemberg also has a habit of being indistinct with her words at times, possibly in the search for more beautiful sounds, which she certainly possesses. The orchestra plays well and the sound is good; one minor quibble is that the chorus in the Humming Chorus is noticeably but not unduly flat. A much more serious drawback though is that the otherwise informative booklet is printed in Italian only; this is fine if you are acquainted and knowledgeable with the language or the opera. If, like me, you are neither, it causes a problem in following the plot on stage, despite the summary given to follow the disc index.

In summary, an interesting issue. My own preference would be for the standard version, both for the sake of familiarity and for the better atmospheric surround. Either way, there is the choice of very decent performances at bargain £10 prices, whichever version (or both!) you prefer. A very good way to get to know the opera, before venturing further.

John Portwood

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