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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly (1904) [135:29]
Victoria de los Angeles (Madama Butterfly, soprano), Giuseppe Di Stefano (Pinkerton, tenor), Tito Gobbi (Sharpless, baritone), Anna Maria Canali (Suzuki, mezzo), Maria Huder (Kate Pinkerton, mezzo), Renato Ercolani (Goro and Prince Yamadori, tenor), Bruno Sbalchiero (Imperial Commissioner, bass), Arturo La Porta (Zio Bonzo, bass)
Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Gianandrea Gavazzeni
rec. 1954 (no other information)
La Bohème: Sì, mi chiamano Mimì [05:01], Donde lieta uscì [03:09]
Victoria de los Angeles (soprano)
Rome Opera Orchestra/Giuseppe Morelli, rec. 1954
REGIS RRC 2070 [69:12 + 74:27]

 

For all its popularity, "Madama Butterfly" is not an easy opera to get right. Cio-Cio-San, to give Madama Butterfly her real name, is a fragile creature, only sixteen when the opera starts, and though she does show a somewhat misguided tenacity in her insistence that her husband will come back one day, and fearsome resolution when the awful truth at last dawns on her, your average grand opera soprano is going to swamp the poor girl’s personality. Yet the nature of the vocal writing means that attempts to resolve the part with a much gentler voice are doomed to be embarrassing failures; Puccini expects a voice with the heft to soar over his orchestra, no less here than in Tosca or Turandot. All the same, this is not an opera for Callas-treatment; her supreme Puccini role was Tosca. Renata Tebaldi had all the heft required, yet could also scale her voice down to the most angelic pianissimos. There is a lot to be said for her first set, conducted by Erede and available on Naxos. All the same, she risks sounding a little bit too regal.

Victoria de los Angeles had a basically smallish voice – she was great in lieder – and her best operatic roles were either ones where a large voice was not required (Rosina in "Il barbiere di Siviglia") or ones where she could make creative use of her smaller voice to suggest fragility. In many ways she may be the ideal compromise in the role of Butterfly between too much and too little. If you listen to her principal arias on their own – as you will do if, instead of the present set, you buy the Regis compilation entitled "The Modest Prima Donna", which I am contemporaneously reviewing – you may end up dissatisfied. So much beauty and feeling at the beginning, not quite the heft to carry it home at the end. The two fillers from "La Bohème" tell a similar tale. But when you hear the entire opera, it feels different. It is a very detailed characterization, as you might expect from a singer who also excelled in lieder, and somehow you are so convinced that you are really listening to Cio-Cio-San herself that the less than ideally full tone in the big climaxes is all part if the magic. A moving assumption, then.

The role of Pinkerton can also be a problem, since a rather caddish fellow has to sing some very lovely music. The first Tebaldi recording ducked the problem by having Giuseppe Campora who sung well enough without really trying to create a character at all (for her stereo remake she was joined by Bergonzi). Giuseppe Di Stefano (remember that capital "D" another time, Regis!) sings with all the generosity of tone, as Italianate as the best Chianti, for which the public loved him. A reliable eye-witness once related to me how Gianandrea Gavazzeni was so enraged at a first violinist who entered far too loud that he seized the hapless fellow’s instrument and flung it to the back of the auditorium. I did occasionally wish he would do something similar with Di Stefano, but perhaps this is a deliberate attempt to characterize Pinkerton as an impulsive, superficial but not actually unpleasant person. Certainly, he seems genuinely sorry when he realizes what he has done at the end.

It would be worth learning Italian just to hear how subtly Tito Gobbi sings it, every word given its weight both in the musical line and for its character. This is another role which can easily pass for nothing; not here. I have no information about Anna Maria Canali (and none is offered) but she makes as much of a mark as a Suzuki can, as does Maria Huder – a long-term stalwart in cameo roles – in the even smaller part of Kate Pinkerton.

Not the least of the recording’s success lies in the conducting. In his later years Gavazzeni took a leisurely, loving view, as did Tullio Serafin in the second Tebaldi recording. Here, in his mid-forties, he is urgent, though without ever driving too hard. It is an immensely subtle performance in its pacing. Puccini has fairly plastered the score with tempo directions, almost every other bar containing a call for a "ritenuto" or an "accelerando". Conductors tend to either ignore them or get bogged down with them. I can honestly say that not a single direction goes ignored and Gavazzeni shows that by this means the music frees itself of the tyranny of bar-lines and becomes fluid, free-spirited. The orchestra is not always precise but it makes all the right sounds. This is classic Puccini from a conductor who learnt his trade in an Italy still recognizably that of Puccini.

Victoria de los Angeles recorded Butterfly again in stereo with Björling and Sereni, conducted by Santini. Rather strangely, this seems to be the only studio recording by Di Stefano and Gobbi of their respective roles, and the only one under Gavazzeni too, for that matter. This in itself would make it a recording of some importance; since these four artists combine to make a thrilling and moving experience with no weak link, it looks like being a classic set. When I reviewed the first Tebaldi version on Naxos I felt it had much to offer as a cheap way of getting to know the opera; I would say the present one is stronger still and the recording comes up well, with only a slight trace of distortion at climaxes.

No libretto but good notes and a synopsis.

Christopher Howell

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