Ralph Moore
Madama Butterfly
The very fact that this recording was made at all is a cause for celebration. The 2004 Tristan und Isolde was declared by EMI to be the last commercial recording of its kind; henceforth opera would be available only on DVDs of live performances – but here we are with a brand new Madama Butterfly performed by a top-rate cast and conductor.

When he became the Royal Opera’s Music Director in 2002, Pappano vowed to make recordings only with his resident forces, but being a pragmatist and no prima donna of the old school, he sensibly compromised his principles when the opportunity arose to make this recording in Rome. Given that an opera recording can incur costs approaching half a million pounds, it made sense to integrate the project into the annual schedule of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Overheads such as the hall, the studio and the orchestra itself were thus absorbed within the Accademia’s budget and the project became commercially viable. Furthermore, the timing was right: had the current financial crisis hit earlier, or the session schedule been delayed, one wonders if it would ever have got off the ground.

So we have every reason to cheer and hope that so risky a venture as a new, complete, opera recording proves financially succesful. I feel a certain pressure on me as a reviewer to be as positive as possible about this set – and, thankfully, that’s not too hard. The indications are all good: the reigning EMI house diva Angela Gheorghiu has a particular affinity with Puccini; her voice has just the right plangency and morbidezza for his heroines. She has not sung the rôle on stage – but then, neither had Mirella Freni when she made her seminal version with Karajan – and indeed, she never did perform it live. German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is one of the two or three most sought-after on the circuit, with a voice having the kind of heft that is all too rare today. Antonio Pappano is proving to be the most dependable and successful of conductors; despite being only in mid-career he has already made a dozen opera sets at a time when most conductors can only dream of so doing. Finally, the idea of returning a major Puccini recording to the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia has a nostalgic as well as a practical appeal: they were responsible for legion top-quality recordings in the 1950s.

So can I be sufficiently positive about this recording? Yes; but with some qualifications. Let’s start with the obvious: the sound is spectacularly good; spacious, warm, and superior to any previous set – so much so that there is quite a lot of extraneous noise, especially if one listens through headphones: creaks, thumps, groans and cars accelerating all form a sonic underlay, so acute are the microphones. Balances are very good and the virtuosity of Pappano’s orchestra is there for all to hear; there is energy and attack in plenty, in combination with some lovely gradation of dynamics. Little details and subtleties emerge under Pappano’s direction; he has clearly re-thought the score and brought his customary zest to bear. Karajan’s reading – my main reference point for comparison – is often longer-breathed and grander, and the sound a little more plush, less pointed – but I haven’t heard many complaints about either his conducting or the technical quality of the Decca recording.

Madama Butterfly must stand or fall by the quality of its two principals, but I’ll deal with the supporting cast first. All are more than adequate, yet each is bettered elsewhere. I have always thought that Robert Kerns’s Sharpless, in the Karajan set, has been unfairly criticised for dullness; he has a pleasant voice and responds both wisely and sympathetically to the caddish Pinkerton’s self-inflicted predicament. He is no Gobbi, whose nuanced vocalisation, apart from some strain in the upper reaches of his range, is near ideal in the 1954 recording conducted by Gavazzeni. Compared with both of these, Fabio Capitanucci is a bit of a bellower; he has a nice voice but little subtlety. As Suzuki, Enkelejda Shkosi is a little wobbly and matronly compared with Christa Ludwig, though her Flower Duet with Gheorghiu goes very well. Similarly, Cristina Reale’s Kate reveals too much wobble in her few phrases. Gregory Bonfatti’s Goro has one of those “cutting edge” character tenors which can grate on the ear; I much prefer Michel Sénéchal’s silky insolence in the Karajan. Raymond Aceto’s Bonzo is simply unacceptable; his uningratiating tone is as bad as I had remembered - from his Capellio in “I Capuleti e i Montecchi”. Give me Marius Rintzler’s noble sound any day. The chorus is excellent, especially the ladies accompanying Butterfly as they ascend the hill.

Now to the raison d’être of this set: Gheorghiu’s Butterfly. As with her recordings of La Rondine and Tosca, both made before she had sung the parts on stage, this is her first essay at this most demanding of lyric-spinto rôles – although you would never guess it. She really lives the part and certain moments are unforgettably realised: the searing, surging despair of her “Ah! m’ha scordata?”, the lovely, liquid portamenti in the love duet, the heart-rending cries of “Morta!” in “Sai cos’ebbe cuore” – as Sharpless observes, “Quanta pietà” indeed; she never fails to move. Even without quite having the vocal resources of some of her illustrious vocal forebears, she manages triumphantly the transition from fragile teenager to heart-broken wife and mother to tragic heroine. She cannot emulate the unearthly beauty of Mirella Freni’s floated D-flat in the entrance aria – Gheorghiu’s is not ideally steady – but she does almost everything else admirably. Her fans will want this set for her performance alone. There is one puzzling little oddity, given the obvious time and trouble expended on this recording: Gheorghiu fluffs the words at the beginning of Act 2, saying “Perchè rispose” instead of “dispone”. A negligible error – but why not re-take?

Finally, to Jonas Kaufmann’s Pinkerton – and for me, here’s the rub. I have greatly admired his singing, both live and on disc, although I was far less enthusiastic than some about his singing of the classic Italian tenor rôles on his recital disc; it seems to me that his timbre is far better suited to Weber, Wagner and Bizet’s Don José and I hear nothing here to change my mind. I miss the smile in the voice, the Italianate gleam, the seamless legato of a true Puccini tenor like Pavarotti in his prime. Kaufmann’s hefty, baritonal sound is certainly thrilling and there is every justification for characterising the cruel, feckless Pinkerton as a bit of a brute. This, apparently, was Kaufmann’s conception of Pinkerton as “cold, calculating”; it both suits his voice and explains why, according to reports, both Gheorghiu and Pappano were urging him to greater passion in the love music. That said, it robs Pinkerton of an essential vocal allure and the audience of any chance of suspending their condemnation of an essentially unattractive anti-hero. You have to believe that Pinkerton, as a”Yankee vagabondo”, temporarily believes his own lies while he is serenading his new child-wife. In addition, I am perturbed by Kaufmann’s apparent acquisition of a new vocal bad habit: he repeatedly injects little glottal sobs into what should be a seamless sound. Presumably he does this for emotive effect but too much of “les larmes dans la voix” becomes a tiresome tic. The top of his voice, although often thrilling, does not expand or caress in the manner of singers such as Bergonzi or Björling. Thus the climactic B-flat of “America for ever” is uncomfortable, the pianissimi can turn husky, and too many high notes are approached with that little bleat which disrupts the line. I still much enjoyed listening to his virile, impassioned sound, but I found his portrayal of Pinkerton a tad two-dimensional, and I hope that he will not let the glottal habit take root in his voice.

The packaging of this set is a “2CD Limited Edition deluxe clamshell, [with] 152pp booklet, libretto, synopsis, liner notes, [and] photos”. In other words, beautifully presented – although the way the booklet rattles inside the over-large box is a bit irritating.

Coincidentally, this new recording was made during the 150th anniversary of Puccini’s birth; it certainly does him honour it but will not replace the Karajan in my loyalties.

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