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Puccini Butterfly PTC5186783NNNN
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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly (1904/1907)
Melody Moore (soprano) – Madama Butterfly
Stefano Secco (tenor) – Pinkerton
Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano) – Suzuki
Lester Lynch (baritone) – Sharpless
Alexander Kaimbacher (tenor) – Goro
Kevin Short (bass-baritone) – Lo zio Bonzo
Amatai Pati (tenor) – Il principe Yamadori
Liesbeth Devos (soprano) – Kate Pinkerton
Florian K÷fler (bass) – Il commissario imperial
Coro & Orquestra Gulbenkian/Lawrence Foster
rec. June-July 2019, Grande Auditˇrio of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon
Italian libretto and English translation
PENTATONE PTC5186783 SACD [66:19 + 77:03]

The first thing to say about this new release is that its sound is extraordinarily vivid, as one might expect from Pentatone. The second thing is, do we need another recording of Madama Butterfly, when the catalogue is already replete with Big Name studio recordings? My own list of favourites is headed by Karajan with Freni and Pavarotti, followed by Barbirolli with Scotto and Bergonzi, Leinsdorf with Price and Tucker and again with Moffo and Valletti, Santini with de los ┴ngeles and Bj÷rling – and many more. Admittedly, none of those is a digital recording but they are in perfectly listenable sound and exhibit artistry of the highest order, while the most recent, major, digital recording from Pappano strikes me as a failure. It is also true that sopranos with voices big enough to sing the role of Cio-Cio-San on stage couldn’t always bring it off on record as they sound too mature and hearty; egregious examples are Tebaldi, CaballÚ and Callas – who is not especially well partnered, either. Like them, Melody Moore has a big voice and doesn’t sound like a fifteen-year-old either; she is hardly alone in that regard but I for one cannot abide Toti Dal Monte’s pouting “little girl” sound in her famous 1939 recording and am prepared to accept that such are the demands of the role, it is unreasonable to be too exigent in that regard. Having said that, it seems to me that Freni, de los ┴ngeles and Moffo come closest to squaring that circle.

Certainly Melody Moore makes a fine impression in that all-important first entrance as she climbs the hill. She has a full, well-nourished instrument of bell-like tone without a hint of shrillness and she does lovely things with it, such as the B-flat swelled from pianissimo on “ove” and the superbly steady, pianissimo top D-flat on the concluding “d’amor”. On first listening, I was tempted to conclude that although her voice is undoubtedly beautiful, her characterisation was bland but subsequently I came to appreciate the credible warmth and naivety of her portrayal. Hers is a slow-build interpretation, carefully thought out and meticulously graded such that the pain and desperation of her suicide really make an impact. “Un bel dý” is masterfully sung, with admirable variety of tonal colour and the text movingly delivered and when she unleashes the full power of her voice, such as in her first, ironic address to Yamadori, or in “Ah, m’ha scordata?”, the effect is really impressive.

If only the other principal singers were up to her standard. There is little gleam or velvet in Stefano Secco’s grainy tenor, especially if one has been imprinted with the sound of Pavarotti or Bj÷rling in this music; his basic tone is scratchy and his top notes are thin and strained, without squillo. While Moore’s warmth of sound lends ardour to the love duet closing the first Act, the lack of sensuality in Secco’s tenor diminishes its eroticism and he is heavily over-shadowed by his supposedly diminutive Butterfly. As a result, he never emulates Pavarotti’s trick of making that heartless swine Pinkerton at least transiently attractive. He warms up during that duet but is simply not sufficiently endowed vocally. Lester Lynch’s hefty, cumbersome baritone with his pulsing vibrato has little of the urbane sophistication of diplomat as he is portrayed by Gobbi, Sereni or Panerai and Elisabeth Kulman is vocally undistinguished, crooning unsteadily and making little impression as Suzuki if we are thinking back to Christa Ludwig or Rosalind Elias. The Imperial Commissioner is awful; the clumsy Bonzo little better.

Among the supporting cast, tenors Alexander Kaimbacher and Amitai Pati are both pleasant-toned, characterful Goro and Yamadori respectively, the former avoiding caricature and the latter coming across sympathetically. Leisbeth Devos makes a fine job of her brief but crucial appearance as Pinkerton’s American wife.

Conductor Lawrence Foster’s accompaniment is entirely unobtrusive and non-interventionist but that gives his singers room to colour and inflect their phrasing convincingly. His grasp of the overall symphonic structure is secure and harmonious. The chorus is excellent – although I have heard sweeter, steadier, more magically distanced renderings of the Humming Chorus - and the orchestra, while not especially sumptuous sounding, plays cleanly and accurately, with considerable verve. Little vignettes such as the atmospheric music opening both parts of Act II are neatly negotiated; the woodwinds are especially sonorous and the timpani crisp. The clarity and precision of the playing is much enhanced by the multi-layered digital sound here.

The provision of the full libretto with an English translation is a welcome bonus - but having the booklet glued into the digipack rather than being removable makes it awkward to hold and read, with the discs flapping about. A little editorial matter: the lines beginning “Son la causa innocente…”, originally given to Kate Pinkerton in the original 1903 version, asking for Butterfly’s forgiveness and promising to take care of her son, have been reinstated here, filling out Kate’s character and offering a shred of consolation.

This is very much Melody Moore’s show and I place her Butterfly among the very best. The conducting and orchestral playing, too are wholly satisfying; I only wish the other deficiencies were less in evidence – and I wonder why it has taken two and a half years for it to be released?

Ralph Moore

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