Opera Now, January 2009
George Hall
EMI's new recording of Madama Butterfly stands up well to comparisons with its illustrious predecessors
Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Puccini's Japanese tragedy has been recorded complete numerous times over the last 87 years, reflecting its huge and ongoing status as one of the world's most popular operas. Any new recording has, inevitably, a lot to live up to, since several of the major sets have acquired a classic status and remain in the catalogues decades after they were first released. Among those regularly cited as outstanding interpretations of the piece are the two led by Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles (1954, 1960); another two with Renata Scotto as the protagonist, especially the first (1966); the first of two with Mirella Freni in the lead (1978); and the single set with Maria Callas as Cio Cio San (1955). An earlier set with Toti Dal Monte in the lead and Beniamino Gigli as Pinkerton (1939) also has its admirers, despite more limited sound.

But today's leading singers and conductors also deserve the opportunity to place their conceptions of such major works on disc, and EMI's new Butterfly, led by Angela Gheorghiu's protagonist, is to be welcomed. Taken as a whole, there's certainly a great deal to admire in the result.

Recorded in Rome, with the Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under its music director, Antonio Pappano, the set registers in first-class sound, with the score's wide range of colour and dynamic caught in detail as well as presented in a spacious overall acoustic. In few previous versions does the sheer brilliance of Puccini's magnificent orchestral writing seduce the ear as here.

Part of this highly successful aspect can be ascribed to the loving conducting of Pappano himself, a musician who seems to be able to enter into the spirit of the wide variety of composers he performs with remarkable sympathy and understanding. No other conductor today is as persuasive a Puccini interpreter as he, relishing as he does both the brash 'masculine' elements of the writing as well as the 'feminine' sensitive aspects. He certainly gets close to the standards set by Barbirolli in the 1966 Scotto recording, also made in Rome (at the Teatro dell'Opera), and in Karajan's two versions.

The title role is one of the great challenges, vocally and interpretatively, for a soprano voice combining the sheer beauty of a lyric instrument with the weight of a spinto. On record, at least, Angela Gheorghiu offers what is required. She also has a good sense of Puccinian style. Two things are lacking. Her 15-year-old child bride of the first act sounds much the same as the maturing adult of the rest of the opera; most of her great predecessors (especially Dal Monte and Callas) make a significant difference in the kinds of sounds they deploy to differentiate them. Secondly, and more crucially, hers is a far more generalised approach than many, not engaging with the text in the moment-by-moment way that the singers mentioned above do. The result, ultimately, is less involving.

The discriminating tenor Jonas Kaufmann sings a very fine Pinkerton, a touch baritonal in quality but none the worse for that. What he does lack, inevitably, is the Italianate quality that artists like Gigli, Carlo Bergonzi and Pavarotti have brought to the role - an American, admittedly, but most effectively sung with a Latin dynamism and impetuousness contained within the tone itself. His is nevertheless a highly intelligent and stylish reading.

There is strong support from an emotionally committed Enkelejda Shkosa in the crucial role of Suzuki from and from Fabio Capitanucci as a perceptive and three-dimensional Sharpless. In smaller assignments, Gregory Bonfatti presents a plausible rogue of a Goro and Raymond Aceto is a terrifyingly authoritative Bonze.

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