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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly (1904, revised version) [147.00]
Mirella Freni (soprano) - Butterfly; Plácido Domingo (tenor) - Pinkerton; Robert Kerns (baritone) - Sharpless; Christa Ludwig (mezzo) - Suzuki; Michel Sénéchal (tenor) - Goro; Marius Rintzler (bass) - Bonze; Giorgio Stendoro (baritone) - Yamadori; Siegfried Rudolf Frese (baritone) - Registrar; Hans Helm (bass) - Imperial Commissioner; Wolfgang Schneider (baritone) - Yakuside; Elke Shary (soprano) - Kate Pinkerton; Martha Heigl (soprano) - Cousin; Erna Maria Mühlberger (soprano) - Aunt; Evamaria Hurdes (contralto) - Mother
Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Vienna, January (?), September 1974; filmed: Berlin, November-December 1974
no extras
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 0735131 Blu-ray [147.00]

In the present economic climate when studio recordings of large-scale operas are as rare as hen’s teeth, it is astounding to realise how much money the record companies were prepared to throw at Herbert von Karajan and Madama Butterfly in 1974. Karajan recorded the opera for Decca with a hand-picked cast in January of that year. When DG decided to make a film of the work employing a pre-recorded soundtrack, the decision was taken to replace Luciano Pavarotti’s Pinkerton heard on the audio release with Plácido Domingo, who was presumably regarded as a more athletically credible American naval lieutenant. Although the remainder of the cast remained unchanged, the decision was taken to completely re-record the whole piece — and not just the sections with the leading tenor — a matter of mere months later. In his booklet note Kenneth Chalmers states that the filming was done “to a playback of Karajan’s recording of the opera with almost the identical cast in January of that year,” and the recording dates given reflect that. In his biography of Karajan Robert Osborne specifically states that the film soundtrack was re-recorded in its entirety, and the differences in detail in the performances — as well as the differences in the recorded sound — certainly suggest that to be the case.
 
The earlier sound recording divided critical opinion, with its typically Decca sound: the orchestra forwardly placed and the voices recessed in the sonic wash of the resonant acoustic. Some critics such as Edward Greenfield in his retrospective 1979 review of Butterfly recordings in Opera on record regarded Karajan’s reading as the yardstick by which all other entries in the catalogue at the time should be judged. Others complained of the recorded balance and Karajan’s slow speeds, which were ascribed to the conductor’s narcissism and concern for beauty of sound ahead of dramatic truth. Alan Blyth in his 1995 Opera on Video described this video production as “over-blown” and “sadly self-indulgent”, serving “to destroy the fundamental simplicity of the tale”. In this context it is informative to note that the sound on the film soundtrack featured here is radically different from that on the audio CDs. The voices are much more forwardly placed and the orchestral sound is less rounded. In that biography, Osborne also contends that the film contains better performances from Mirella Freni and Robert Kerns, describing the former as giving a reading “at once deeper and more intense” and noting that the latter “bland on record, plays the role of the American consul with a pathos and compassionate seriousness that Chekhov might have approved.”
 
I have to admit that I have always loved the 1974 Karajan CD recording , and cannot accept that his speeds are unacceptably slow. Comparison here has usually been made with Barbirolli’s Rome set, also marked by some slow tempi, usually to condemn in particular the slow compound waltz time adopted by Karajan for the Flower duet. It is certainly well below Puccini’s metronome mark and his marking of Allegretto mosso, but it has a feeling of ‘floating on air’ which matches the emotion at this point and avoids any of the sense of triviality which can so often enter with the lilting 6/8 rhythm. Similarly accusations of over-loud orchestral sound seem to me to fly wide of the mark; Puccini calls for heavier orchestration, particularly in the later scenes, to secure the emotional weight he desires, and to ‘pull the punches’ in these passages is surely a mistake.
 
Nevertheless it has to be admitted that Butterfly is one of the most strenuous and difficult of all roles in the mainstream repertoire. In the first Act she is required to play the part of a young girl of fifteen years, who is slowly maturing into womanhood. Some sopranos have felt tempted to add giggles and other dramatic touches which are seldom convincing and sometimes downright embarrassing. In the second Act, where the character assumes tragic dramatic status, Puccini reinforces the vocal line with fortissimo passages for the full orchestra which rival the most strenuous requirements of Turandot. It is not surprising that many sopranos, including not only Maria Callas — who recorded the role in Karajan’s first recording in the 1950s — but also Mirella Freni, have fought shy of assuming the role on stage. Both on disc and film, Freni is a superlative Butterfly. She cannot look convincingly teenage in Act One (who can?) but she rises magnificently to the tragedy of her situation three years later in Act Two, and – doubtless aided by the microphone – never finds herself struggling to be heard over even the heaviest brass and wind accompaniment.
 
Pavarotti on the sound recording gave one of his best performances on disc, with plenty of the intimate shading of which he was such a master in his earlier years. He seldom even displayed the slightest of discomfort with Karajan’s slowest speeds. Still, one finds it difficult to imagine him displaying the physical leap through the walls of Butterfly’s house with which Ponnelle frames the action here, and Domingo manages it as to the manner born. Robert Kerns was described by Edward Greenfield in Opera on Record as “the only blemish worth noting on the Karajan set … relatively colourless”. The addition of the visual element enables him to express the sympathetic emotions of the character and the warmth and security of his singing are most appealing. Christa Ludwig’s tones are superbly matched to the role of Suzuki, blending beautifully in her ensembles; her acting is, as always, flawless.
 
After production glosses such as the portrayal of Butterfly’s son as a puppet - which featured in a DVD which I reviewed a couple of months back - Jean-Pierre Ponnelle is a model of rectitude. There are also plenty of original ideas, quite apart from the staging of the action as a flashback; a notion that Ponnelle also employed elsewhere. The slow-motion camera during the Flower duet marches the sense of timelessness that Karajan seeks to achieve through his controversial speed. He also ‘internalises’ much of the dialogue, allowing the singer’s silent face to be seen while the soundtrack ‘speaks’ their thoughts. This is not always effective but can be stunning, as at the moment when Butterfly realises that the woman in the garden is Pinkerton’s ‘real’ wife. Even so, it is not always clear why a character should suddenly start to move his or her mouth, and it seems odd to hear full voices coming from a face with closed lips. By delaying the point at which Butterfly commits suicide, he avoids the hiatus than can often arise during the final bars, allowing the closing – and still startlingly original-sounding – discord to coincide with the moment when Pinkerton dives through the wall and the action comes full circle.
 
It has become fashionable in recent years to emphasise the Japanese milieu of the action, by employing staging techniques from oriental theatre and/or Eastern singers in the Japanese roles. It must be admitted that the features of singers such as Freni, Sénéchal and Ludwig do not look at all Japanese, but the production never jars on that account. It's also a real pleasure to find that the emotional punches hit home with all the force that Puccini clearly demands. Are there any quibbles? Well, I must admit that the staging of the prelude to Act Two, Part Two as the fulfilment of Butterfly’s dream of Pinkerton’s return did seem a little too obvious a response to the situation without reflecting the slow dawn depicted in the music. Everything else is so right that this mild annoyance can easily be forgiven. That said, could I once again put in a plea for someone to release the 1970s television broadcast of Butterfly from Joachim Herz’s production for Welsh National Opera? This was sung in English translation, and used elements from Puccini’s earlier version of the score. In purely visual terms it was the most beautiful of all, and the singing wasn’t bad either.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Reviews of earlier releases on DVD: Colin Clarke, Ian Lace and Arthur Baker