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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly (1904) [122:07]
Victoria de los Angeles (Cio-Cio-San [Madama Butterfly], soprano), John Lanigan (Pinkerton, tenor), Barbara Howitt (Suzuki, mezzo), Geraint Evans (Sharpless, bass-baritone), David Tree (Goro, tenor), Michael Langdon (Bonzo, bass), Joyce Livingstone (Kate Pinkerton, mezzo), David Allen (Yamadori, tenor), Ronald Firmager (Imperial Commissioner, bass), Harry Gawler (Registry Official, bass)
Covent Garden Opera Choris, Covent Garden Orchestra/Rudolf Kempe
rec. live, 2 May 1957, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
libretto included with English translation, notes in English, French and German

An interesting supplement to de los Angeles’s studio recordings but it cannot replace them.

I suppose the primary interest behind this resurrection is the Butterfly of Victoria de los Angeles. Her fragile, touching yet detailed assumption was much cherished. She recorded the role in the studio twice, in 1954 with Di Stefano, Gobbi and Gavazzeni, the second in 1959 with Björling, Sereni and Santini. I enthusiastically reviewed a Regis reissue of the first of these some time ago. So the question is, do you need this somewhat dimly recorded live one too?

In the first act the news is not good. Puccini’s smaller roles are strange. If they are sung well – as they were on the Gavazzeni recording – you hardly notice them. They are just part of the background, like the scenery or the orchestra. But they have to be there and they have to be right. David Tree’s Goro has an uncouth, whining voice and it beaches the opera from the start. We also note fairly early on that Barbara Howitt’s Suzuki is ungainly where she has a lot of words to cope with and unattractive of tone in the cantabile moments. You only notice how much some of these characters actually sing when they’re cast so as to make you wince.

More serious still is John Lanigan’s Pinkerton. The voice is Italianate and elegant, and I’m sure he could do a nicely turned "Dalla sua pace" or even "Una furtive lagrima". His Pinkerton might have given pleasure in a small provincial hall but here he just isn’t up to it. Supposedly powerful high notes are weak and left as soon as possible. Though Giuseppe Di Stefano wasn’t the subtlest of tenors – but Pinkerton is hardly a subtle character – his voice is the real thing. Paradoxically, the vulnerability of de los Angeles’s Butterfly actually needs to contrast with someone fairly bullish to make its point. Frankly, I don’t understand what these three singers were doing in a supposedly international opera house. Michael Langdon’s Bonzo is a fine cameo and Geraint Evans is a splendid Sharpless but I’ll come back to him in a moment.

Another point of interest might be Rudolf Kempe. He was a much loved figure, in Great Britain particularly, and he didn’t make too many recordings of opera. He can certainly conduct Puccini – would one have doubted it? – and has the right flexibility and sweetness. Yet right from the beginning Gavazzeni sounds like a man with a mission and he gets a surge and a slancio that is difficult to resist. Sometimes with Kempe the music seems to waft along in a slightly Delian way, nice but not quite right. He allows de los Angeles more space with certain phrases, but I’m not sure she benefits from it.

In Act Two – as the Ricordi score calls it, here they call it Act Two Part One – things change a little. Pinkerton is safely out of earshot though there are some unpleasant things from Goro and Yamadori. It is here that Evans’s Sharpless comes into its own, moving and humane as he understands and sympathises with Butterfly’s predicament. His rich, rounded voice is in its prime. I praised Gobbi but I think Evans has an extra dimension.

Kempe’s conducting is at its most divergent from Gavazzeni’s in this act. He seems to have had a particularly symbiotic relationship with Evans for the music goes at exactly the right speed for the singer to give the words all the character he is capable of. Really, the music takes on a different character altogether in this act. Under Kempe, Butterfly’s "Due cose potrei fare" goes at about half the speed it does under Gavazzeni. I suppose in the last resort it is too Mahlerian and Gavazzeni was closer to the Puccini tradition, but just once in a while I’ll return to this starkly powerful rendering. Here, too, de los Angeles seizes the chance to give a more pondered interpretation than usual.

In Act Three – or Act Two Part Two if you prefer – there are fewer differences. Gavazzeni tides over certain moments where Kempe lingers, but the big moments are not notably different from each conductor. This means we’re back to the singers. De los Angeles is moving as ever but at certain key moments she seems to turn away from the microphone so you can’t quite get the same pleasure as from the studio recording. Evans is good again but there’s Howitt and Lanigan to contend with. The trio between Sharpless, Pinkerton and Suzuki sounds a bit odd with a fine Sharpless, an unattractive Suzuki and a Pinkerton who disappears just when he should dominate. At his top B flat he might as well not be singing at all for all you can hear of him.

So, while the Gavazzeni is a good cheap way of getting to know the opera if you don’t mind mono sound, this is a bit more specialized. De los Angeles’s admirers will certainly find certain aspects of the role touched on more intimately than in the studio. Kempe’s followers will be glad to have a new opera in his discography and may appreciate his intimate approach more than I did. British opera buffs of a certain generation will be glad to hear Geraint Evans in his prime and to catch a brief snatch of Michael Langdon. The drawbacks I have described are not likely to improve with repeated hearings.

The set is lovingly documented. I am puzzled, though, by the statement signed by Tony Hall and Antonio Pappano and presumably taken from the notes by Alexandra Wilson that this performance was the first ever given of an opera at Covent Garden in the original language. Originally, back in the 19th century, Covent Garden was the Royal Italian Opera House and all operas were sung there in Italian. This had the slight disadvantage that a native opera on a Shakespearian theme like Balfe’s Falstaff had to be translated into Italian, but actual Italian operas got original language treatment. In the early 20th century I seem to remember reading that Beecham put on a native opera – could it have been D’Erlanger’s "Tess"? – and got a furious letter from a subscriber who didn’t pay good money "to hear opera sung in English". And those bits of "Turandot" under Barbirolli, the Beecham/Reiner "Tristan", bits of a Furtwängler "Ring" and various other things that have surfaced from the inter-war years, weren’t they in the original language? And then in the 1950s, Callas didn’t sing her various roles in English, I’m sure of that. And if "Peter Grimes" and the like weren’t sung in the original language, whatever language were they translated into? I realize that there were other occasions when operas were given in translation or even with each singer using the language he or she preferred. Maybe Alexandra Wilson meant that it was the first opera to be given under a new policy of ALWAYS using the original language, but then as I recall, in the late 60s it was still touch and go whether a Slavonic opera would be sung in English or the original language.

But what are Ms Wilson’s credentials? An opera "expert" who thinks you write Giuseppe Di Stefano with a small "d" needs a refresher course in her subject. It’s like writing mcGregor or macLean and filing them under "G" and "L".

Christopher Howell


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