Gramophone, March 2009
Patrick O'Connor
Madama Butterfly
A Butterfly worthy to set beside the greats - is it Gheorghiu's best role yet?
There are few other operas that depend quite so completely on the singer in the title-role, and in this new set - the first Butterfly from EMI in over 40 years - Angela Gheorghiu joins that elite group of divas who have recorded the role of Cio-Cio-San before appearing in it on stage (Tebaldi, Callas, Moffo and Freni).

Approaching such a familiar work one waits for something individual, a clue to the artist's vision of the role. This came for me at the beginning of Act 2, in the scene between Suzuki and Butterfly when she describes Pinkerton's departing words, "Quell'ultima mattina". Gheorghiu somehow conveys not only the depth of Butterfly's love but also her inner knowledge that, in fact, her belief in Pinkerton's devotion is hopeless. This is a mature interpretation which suggests strength above all, so that the touches of vulnerability are added with subtlety. Although she has in the past stated that she has no intention of singing the role on stage, this performance seems to me her best Puccini role since Magda in La Rondine more than a decade ago. Maybe it wouldn't suit her in a theatre as large as the Met or Covent Garden but I would love to hear and see her in it. The rest of the cast live up to her standard: Jonas Kaufmann is an ardent Pinkerton although he cannot, as Gedda (with Callas) and Bergonzi (with Tebaldi and Scotto) both did, suggest a touch of youthful charm, the only possible redeeming feature for this anti-hero. Enkelejda Shkosa is a vivid Suzuki and Fabio Capitanucci the sympathetic Sharpless.

Conducting the orchestra and chorus of the Santa Cecilia Academy, Antonio Pappano takes a less driven and melodramatic way with the score than Karajan in his three recordings; it's nearer in mood to Barbirolli (my favourite), though there is no lack of passion at the great climaxes - just listen to the spine-tingling moment of the sighting of the ship. So, a fine new Butterfly, unlikely to topple some of the great recordings of the past but worthy to set beside them.

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