Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly (1904) [125:36]
Cio Cio San - Victoria de los ngeles
Pinkerton - Giuseppe di Stefano
Sharpless - Tito Gobbi
Suzuki - Anna Maria Canali
Kate Pinkerton - Maria Huder
Goro - Renato Ercolani
Il principe Yamadori - Arturo La Porta
Lo zio Bonzo - Bruno Sbalchiero
Il commissario imperiale - Arturo La Porta
L'ufficiale del Registro - Arturo La Porta
Chorus of Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Orchestra of Teatro dell'Opera di Roma/Gianandrea Gavazzeni
rec. July-August 1954, Rome Opera House. Mono. ADD
Brilliant Classics Opera Collection
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94206 [68:40 + 51:56]

This opera, about a young geisha who falls in love with a selfish American officer, is abandoned, has his child and later kills herself is a mainstay of the repertoire worldwide. The success of a performance of Madama Butterfly relies on the conductor resisting excess - a challenge given the number of wonderful tunes and dramatic situations which he or she might be forgiven for wallowing in.

Perhaps even more than Puccini's other operas, Butterfly is subject to interpretation which can hugely alter the feel and impact of this most popular of works. The casting is frequently suspect with the title role being sung by a huge variety of voices when the young character probably sounds best with a lyrical voice having a little more heft in reserve for the end. On record there are performances of the title role with such light voices as Jeanette Pilou, Anneliese Rothenberger and Toti dal Monte who are usually considered coloratura singers or best suited to operetta. At the other end of the scale there are voices of Wagnerian proportions such as Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas.

The role of Pinkerton is similarly sung by a wide range of singers. Some tend towards the dark and heavy such as Placido Domingo and even the tenor James King noted for his Siegmund. Others are light and lyrical such as Cesare Valletti and the young Nicolai Gedda. As such it is all the more surprising and enjoyable to find a recording with three well-matched voices and a conductor who does not push and pull the opera out of all recognition.

This performance enjoys excellent conducting from Gianandrea Gavazzeni. With speeds that are brisk but not lightning-fast compare Erich Leinsdorf and the lyrical voices of Anna Moffo and Cesare Valletti - Gavazzeni's recording, as with his L'amico Fritz and Cavalleria Rusticana has grace and charm. This is welcome in repertoire that is all too often rendered charmless and vulgar or else saccharine. An example is his pacing at the start of the opera which is not rushed but in fact far more appropriate than the decadent textures encouraged by Karajan (Pavarotti, Freni, Kerns) and especially Sinopoli (Freni, Carreras, Pons) which killed the spontaneity in their performances.

Gavazzeni's cast is excellent with Victoria de los ngeles especially fine. 'Un Bel Di' is superbly done and full of pathos. Her duet with Suzuki is well phrased and at the same time her performance of the 'Con onor muore' finale is very dramatic and powerful. There is rarely any sense of the part being too large for her. This is certainly a performance to match her classic Mimi in La Bohme. She is an intelligent artist and very effective in the duets with her partners.

Di Stefano is a vibrant Pinkerton with a youthful charisma allied to a sunny tone, unmatched in this role. His voice is more rounded than that of Gedda (Karajan with Callas) with examples such as 'Dovunque al mondo' sounding exciting and vibrant. The phrasing of the love duet in act one is what makes this performance so special with examples such as his entry on 'Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia' sounding spontaneous and fresh.

Tito Gobbi is an exceptional Sharpless at least on record. His assumption is full of good humour and the duets with Butterfly are uniquely moving. The exchange at 'Ora a noi' [Track 18 CD 1] shows both artists at their best with the characters clearly delineated and the phrasing perfectly judged. If the voice is not so naturally warm or vibrant as the near-perfect Rolando Panerai (with Barbirolli) this is still an excellent performance.

The orchestra plays their hearts out and the chorus is nicely focused. Their performances were probably not equalled until 20 years later with Barbirolli (EMI).

The mono sound is very clear and well balanced - the act one love duet sounds very beautiful.

The CDs are prettily packaged in a slip case. There is no libretto but a detailed synopsis. The 1988 re-mastering surprisingly sounds a good deal better than some other EMI Butterfly attempts such as the hissy and bright sound on the Santini (de los Angeles, Bjorling, Sereni) or the harsh edge imparted to the 1997 reissue of the Callas, Gedda, Karajan.

David Bennett