by Stephen Eddins
Madama Butterfly
The most notable thing about this recording of Madama Butterfly is the conducting of Antonio Pappano. His reading emphasizes the opera's dramatic intensity, and has a sinewy, sometimes brutal power that never lets the listener forget the cruelty and arrogance that are at its core. Pappano highlights the modernist elements in Puccini's score -- its harsh dissonances, sometime startling orchestration, and astonishing harmonically unresolved conclusion -- that tend to be glossed over in more conventionally romantic performances. His approach throws the irony of the love scene into harsh relief, and makes Cio-Cio-San's naïve devotion all the more poignant. The rhythmic fluidity that he brings to the score creates a terrific sense of spontaneity and vitality, and his attention to detail, such as having the strings subtly bend the tone in the pentatonic sections, creates a lovingly nuanced performance. Altogether, it's a revelatory version of the opera. Having a uniformly outstanding cast and two stars at the top of their form also contributes hugely the recording's impact. The minor roles are all vividly etched and are sung beautifully. Relative unknowns Enkelejda Shkosa and Fabio Capitanucci convey tremendous compassion as Suzuki and Sharpless and sing with assurance and understanding. Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann don't have the distinctiveness to compete with the legendary Butterflys and Pinkertons of previous generations, but for modern performers, they are exceptionally successful in filling out the roles. Kaufmann is known for the intensity with which he throws himself into his roles, and he's completely convincing as an arrogant, opportunistic imperialist who can also be a real charmer. His timbre is heroic, and he sings with a compelling Latinate fervor. Gheorghiu's tone is pure and focused, she sings with engaging warmth and soaring openness. She has plenty of unforced power when it's called for, and Un bel dì vedremo is searingly intense. She may not be completely persuasive in the nearly impossible task of conveying the adolescent innocence of a 15 year old, but that's easily forgivable because her Butterfly is so tenderly appealing and touchingly vulnerable. The sound of EMI's studio recording is immaculately clean, with excellent balance and a realistic ambience.

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