The Times, March 6, 2009
Neil Fisher
Angela Gheorghiu: Madama Butterfly
The last time EMI Classics brought out a studio recording of a full-length opera - perhaps the most expensive thing that any record company can produce - the label swore that it really would be the last. So it's terrific news that EMI has changed its mind and put out this lavish Madama Butterfly, particularly given that its chief rival, Universal Classics, is busy diverting all available budgets to crossover and jazz-lite. Even recent purely classical recordings from its stable have sounded less like they were produced in a studio than in somebody's garden shed.

This Butterfly, however, is immaculately recorded, spacious and evocative. Best of all, it gives maximum impact to Antonio Pappano's magisterial conducting of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra. The whole is ravishingly played and beautifully detailed; it might be a cliché, but this Roman orchestra have Puccini's swelling melodies in their blood. Worth singling out the ladies of the Santa Cecilia Chorus, too, whose featherlike touch builds magic out of Cio-Cio-San's first entrance.

And Angela Gheorghiu, who sings that fearsome role? When they record together, Pappano says, they're like “ham and eggs”. And she's certainly not hammy here: banished are any diva-like mannerisms. Instead, she makes the most of what opera buffs neatly call her “morbidezza” (and we clumsily call her “vocal softness”) carefully to etch out Butterfly's passionate vulnerability.

There's a but. She spends far too long applying fluttery Japaneseries, the downfall of any Butterfly who tries to get too native. Puccini's heroine has never been and never will be a convincing portrait of a 15-year-old geisha, so when Gheorghiu tries to apply the teenage make-up it just sounds artificial. And, at the other end of the opera's expressive range, she doesn't have the heft - or perhaps the gravitas - to deliver the full impact of Butterfly's self-sacrifice; come the end, and she hasn't quite nailed the ascent from duped innocent to heroic tragedienne.

Still, you can't fault her diligence, nor the rest of the cast's dramatic flair. Jonas Kaufmann's husky Pinkerton is excellent; if he skimps on ardour, that's because Butterfly's fake husband is more in lust than love. Enkelejda Shkosa contributes a moving Suzuki; Fabio Capitanucci a more spontaneous and less censorious Sharpless than usual. But Pappano is the icing on the cake.

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