This recording, dating from 1955, is in the EMI Great Recordings
of the Century series. I have to admit, to my shame, that
I have not previously encountered this in its entirety although
I have heard bits in highlight compilations. Having said that,
I have read lots about Callas and the vocal problems she encountered
around the time this was made. Trying to put all this previous
knowledge to one side I sat and listened.
mono sound takes a bit of getting used to but I soon became
less aware of it. The opera plot revolves round the four main
characters: Sharpless, Pinkerton, Butterfly and
Suzuki; the first the voice of sense and reason, the second
the carefree American serviceman, the third, the disillusioned,
ultimately discarded, foreign bride; and the fourth the long-suffering
servant who can only look on and give what aid she can.
sung by Nicolai Gedda is a much more sympathetic character than
we normally encounter with interpreters of this role; they mostly
sound like insensitive cads! Listen to the way he sings after
the encounter with Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze. He is full
of sympathy and concern, which gives Butterfly all the more
reason to think that this is a truly western marriage rather
than a Japanese one which is like a contract, and needs to be
renewed annually. Gedda is also one of the best tenors in the
duet at the end of Act 1. This is not just a big showpiece;
this Pinkerton reacts to the situation and seduces his Butterfly
vocally. Gedda also gives us a sense of regret - which other
singers can miss - in
the final aria ‘Addio, fiorito asil’ and integrates this into
the drama. It’s
a truly remarkable performance.
can be a bit of a cardboard character – something of a sounding-board
for the other singers - but in the hands of Mario Borriello
he is a sensitive man with real feelings. In Borriello’s case
you detect his disgust at how Pinkerton treats his Japanese
bride. He sounds truly taken aback when Butterfly produces
the child and becomes angry at Pinkerton’s abandonment of this
family. This aspect can also be heard when, near the end, he
keeps saying to Pinkerton ‘I told you so’. Borriello makes
much of this character and he comes across as three-dimensional
and no mere cipher.
true star of this recording is Maria Callas. She uses her voice
in a way that I have seldom heard from other singers in this
role. In Act 1 she gives us a very sweet, innocent-sounding
Butterfly. After the entrance - in which she soars up to the
high D flat - she depicts all the innocence of this child-bride;
as she tells Sharpless, she is only 15 years old. Later in the
Act she and Pinkerton sing together tenderly. The duet starts
quietly, lovingly, and rises to a musical as well as emotional
climax of an intensity that I have seldom heard on a recording
on this recording, Lucia Danieli, matches Callas in the duets
and creates a sensitive portrayal of the servant who is caring
for her mistress.
Act 2, there are many passages where I get the impression that
she is trying to convince herself as much as Suzuki that Pinkerton
will return; for example the exchanges before ‘Un bel di.
When Sharpless arrives with the letter from Pinkerton she regains
the girlish sound from the first Act until she realises that
perhaps he is not going to come back, and that is why he has
been away for three years. However, when they see an American
ship enter the harbour she and Suzuki are almost breathless
in anticipation until they see the name, and it is his
ship. In this recording the Flower Duet has a forced gaiety
about it, almost as if they know it will end badly, but hope
against all the odds that it will not. After their all-night
vigil waiting for Pinkerton to arrive there is weariness in
Callas’s voice which underlines the fact she has lost hope of
him returning. Later, when she sees Kate Pinkerton in the garden
she realises the truth of the situation. Callas sings here with
a pathos which truly brought a lump to my throat, something
I have not experienced even in the best performance in the opera
house – quite a shattering experience. Her final aria, ‘Tu,
Tu, Piccolo iddio’ is filled with total despair and leads
to the inevitable conclusion of her taking her own life.
is a committed performance by Callas. Yes, one or two notes
do flap about like a flag in a gale, but in a way, this is in
keeping with her character’s emotional frame of mind. The sheer
force of her personality carries you along.
leads the orchestra to great heights and colours the score with
a vibrancy and delicacy of a Japanese silk picture. It is full
of clear detail - in spite of the mono sound - which fits with
the efforts of the principal singers. I cannot remember a recording
of this vintage where this orchestra has played so well. A totally
integrated performance from all concerned.
question - is it worthy to be called a Great Recording of
the Century? From my point of view it is one of the greatest
interpretations committed to disk. It moved me right through
to the final chord which rips at the emotions in a way that
very few performances of any opera have done for many a year.
EMI are right to keep this masterpiece in the catalogue.