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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly - opera in two acts (1904)
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica based on Belasco’s dramatisation of a story by John Luther King.
First performed at La Scala, Milan, 17 February 1904
Madama Butterfly, Maria Callas (sop); Pinkerton, Nicolai Gedda (ten); Suzuki, Lucia Danieli (mezzo); Sharpless, Mario Borriello (bar); Goro, Renato Ercolani (ten); Il Bonze, Plinio Clabassi (bass); Kate Pinkerton, Luisa Villa (mezzo)
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala Milan/Herbert von Karajan
rec. La Scala, Milan. August 1955. MONO
Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn. From English Columbia label LPs
NAXOS HISTORICAL GREAT OPERA RECORDINGS 8.111026-27 [2 CDs: 76.32 + 62.54]



When Maria Callas recorded this Butterfly she had not sung the role in the theatre. She never sang it at La Scala, only ever venturing three performances at the Chicago Lyric Opera later in the year of this recording. The informative booklet essay by Michael Scott, one of the better informed of Callas’s biographers, recounts how, after the last of the Chicago performances, Callas was photographed backstage, still in costume, after having a writ thrust into her hands. The photograph of her snarling face at the retreating server of the writ removed Callas’s name from the arts pages to the front pages of the papers.

Callas had sung Lucia with Karajan at La Scala early in 1954. The performances were rapturously received and reprised when the La Scala Company went on tour to Berlin in September 1955. The first Berlin night was caught live and has been issued on official EMI CDs. The earlier performances at La Scala stirred Walter Legge to want to record singer and conductor together. Lucia had already been recorded with Serafin on the podium (see review) and was thus out of the question. Legge offered Karajan Pagliacci, which the maestro declined. This Butterfly was the outcome of the negotiations. Later Karajan was to record the opera with the wonder vocal duo of Mirella Freni and Pavarotti and the Berlin Philharmonic (Decca). In that recording Karajan slows the tempi and ladles on sugar and jam to Puccini’s already opulent orchestration to give a performance you either love or loathe. What is certain is that the two protagonists sing far better than the main duo here. The recording, in stereo, is from Decca’s very top drawer and has stood the test of time. What Karajan does not have, either here or on that Decca recording, is Barbirolli’s feel for Puccini that comes over so well in EMI’s 1966 Rome recording with Bergonzi’s non-pareil Pinkerton and Scotto as Butterfly (see review). Particularly in act 1 of this recording, I find Karajan ill at ease. Whether this is with Puccini or his soloists, Gedda and Callas, I do not know. His feel for act two is more of what Puccini is about in this work and after hearing Barbirolli and also Serafin in his 1958 recording with Tebaldi a vocally opulent Butterfly (Decca).

The problem I hear with the soloists is their lack of vocal allure. That is a quality that was often a factor in many of Callas’s recorded performances as the 1950s progressed. Here she adopts a childlike vocal persona and voice to represent the ingénue Butterfly who is, after all, supposed to be only fourteen or fifteen years of age. Scotto does the same in the Barbirolli recording. Both singers fail to bring it off, often trying to spin legato lines on the breath and becoming wavery in the process. Yes, there are times, as in all Callas recordings, when an inflection or stress illuminates the dramatic situation. In my view these times are not sufficient to compensate for this vocal policy or the spread on the notes above the stave. Frankly, the results are ugly. Nicolai Gedda as Pinkerton shares this lack of vocal allure. It is a difficult role for a singer to impart any feeling of sympathy, although Bergonzi with both Scotto and Tebaldi manages better than most. Gedda shows his vocal elegance at the start of Bimba dagli occhi pienni di malia (CD 1 tr. 12) but as soon as the orchestra comes in with greater tonal weight he cannot match it and his tone becomes whiter. That lack of tonal colour and variety is evident throughout his interpretation. Lack of vocal presence or distinction is also evident in Mario Borriello’s interpretation of Sharpless, the fall guy who has to pick up the mess of Pinkerton’s feckless sexual adventure.

In his note to the contemporaneously issued Pagliacci in this series (see review), restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn compliments the original engineers of that issue. He notes that the recording is much better than others in the La Scala series. The acoustic for this performance is more like the standard La Scala recording of the period. It is rather flat and dry, a characteristic of the Callas La Scala performances previously re-issued on CD using the master tapes. Despite that, Obert-Thorn is to be congratulated on his achievement in realising worthwhile sonics that do not seriously impair the listening experience. Whether a listener will derive enjoyment from this will depend on their attitude to Callas’s interpretation. There are those, including eminent commentators, who will forgive her every vocal infelicity for the small change, in my view, of the added insights associated with her interpretation. On this occasion I would keep my money in my pocket.

Robert J Farr






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