One of the first discs I reviewed for Musicweb about two years
ago was a Verdi/Puccini recital with Leontyne Price – her very
first actually – recorded in 1960, two years before this
complete Butterfly. The disc included the two Butterfly
arias, which have been of particular importance to me since
they were on an EP I bought very early in my record-collecting
career. They became the yardstick for me as far as Madama
Butterfly goes. Much water has flown under the bridges
of Dalälven since then and many versions of the arias have
gathered on my bending record shelves, many of them marvellous
readings, interpretatively and vocally, but Price’s voice
is for ever associated with this music. I have refreshed
my memory by listening again to these tracks. I was curious – and
a bit sceptical – as to her ability to give a believable
portrait of the teenaged Cio-Cio-San, Price being more at
home with dramatic Toscas, Leonoras, Aidas, Carmens and Amelias.
Other sopranos of her formidable calibre have made glorious
Cio-Cio-Sans, notably Tebaldi, but she never sounded girlish
enough, unable obviously to scale down her large instrument.
Price does this admirably and time and again I made comments
about that in my notes. There are long stretches of wonderful,
light-toned singing. While I can hardly imagine Price on
stage looking properly girlish, the sonic image is that of
a slender little Japanese girl. Of course Puccini has given
any Butterfly an impossible task to carry this portrait consistently,
since the outlay and orchestration of the set-pieces require
a full-toned soprano. In the great love duet that concludes
the first act, Price changes gear – switches on the turbo – and
gives Tucker’s Pinkerton a run for his money. In a somewhat
laboured metaphor she suddenly gains ten years in age. We
have to be happy about that since it ensures a really glorious
duet. And much of it is still sung with the utmost sensitivity
as are her solos in the second act.
Richard Tucker also turns in a reading of great sensitivity, making
Pinkerton a much more sympathetic character than he is but
also making it easier to understand that Butterfly falls
for him. The opening of the love duet proper, Viene la
sera (CD1 tr. 13) is mellifluous and affectionate. In
this he almost challenges Nicolai Gedda on the Callas recording.
Tucker however has more power and ardour than the young Gedda
could muster and so makes the duet a more even affair than
the Gedda-Callas, where the soprano tends to overshadow the
tenor. The best Butterfly, to my mind, is still Victoria
de los Angeles and the matching of voices is even more perfect
there. Jussi Björling, recorded less than a year before his
untimely death at 49, and already marked by his illness,
is less ardent and glowing than he was three years earlier
on that legendary Bohème with de los Angeles. Anyway
Tucker is here just as good as on the Bohème with
Moffo recently enthusiastically welcomed by me (review)
and avoids sentimentalizing the music.
This opera is so much dominated by its heroine that even Pinkerton
is more or less a secondary character, but to make it a success
a star tenor is needed for the first act. The other characters
can almost be seen as comprimarios but any wise producer
still casts them with good singers and in the main that is
the case here too. The weakest member is Philip Maero as
Sharpless. He has a big enough voice but is unsubtle and
grey-toned. He improves temporarily in the second act and
makes more of a character of the Consul. However he completely
misses the opportunity to make something memorable of Io
so che alle sue pene (CD2 tr. 13), a “dream phrase” for
a sonorous and sweet-toned baritone. The young Robert Kerns
here sings Prince Yamadori with darkish tone and confidence.
A dozen years later he was upgraded to Sharpless on Karajan’s
famous Butterfly with Freni and Pavarotti. In this
set he could have been entrusted the part even here. Rosalind
Elias is luxury casting as Suzuki. As the marriage broker
Goro, Piero de Palma, the king of comprimario tenors, delivers
another sharply-etched portrait.
So far I have said nothing about the conducting. This may
well to some listeners be the crucial deciding factor. Erich
once assistant to Toscanini, has never been known as a heart-on-the-sleeve
conductor, rather coldly analytical and often a stickler
for fastish tempos. The opening orchestral introduction is
here unusually aggressive, almost forbidding. The actual
sound of the orchestra is raw and unsubtle, making me initially
suspect that the recording is to blame. As it turns out the
general sound picture is of RCA Victor’s usual well-defined
but not particularly warm nature. The three-channel SACD
mode enhances the analytical character of the reading. Since
1954 RCA had been recording at the Rome Opera House with
the house orchestra. The present production marked the company’s
move to their newly built RCA Italiana Studios and their
own opera orchestra. Many glorious recordings were to be
made there during the years to come. Producer Richard Mohr
gives vivid testimony to the recording procedure which also
included searching out the best available percussion instruments
to give full weight to Puccini’s delicate oriental instrumentation.
The Japanese bells, to mention just one detail, were nowhere
to be found in Europe and were borrowed from the Metropolitan
Opera. They turned out to be a set made specially for the
first Butterfly performance there in 1907. These and
lots of other details are vividly realised in this recording.
They create an authentic atmosphere.
Those wanting most of all surging rubatos and string tone dripping
with treacle will probably be disappointed. Those who, like
me, feel that Puccini in places over-eggs the cake with icing,
will feel gratitude to Leinsdorf for his more objective view.
He is often enough sensitive to nuances and the need of the
singers to expand a phrase but in general he keeps the proceedings
on a tight rein.
The booklet has, besides Richard Mohr’s notes on the recording, an
essay on “The Failure and Success of Butterfly” by George
R. Marek. There’s also a synopsis while the libretto can
be downloaded from Sony BMG’s website.
For the most individual reading of the title role, Maria
Callas is forever unsurpassed. For the loveliest Cio-Cio-San
de los Angeles is hard to beat. For an overwhelming total
experience with glowing Vienna Philharmonic strings Karajan’s
remake with Freni and Pavarotti is hors concours.
However with Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker in top form
and with Leinsdorf’s efficient and unsentimental conducting,
the present version, now at budget price, is a worthy addition
to anyone’s collection of Butterflies.
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