ClassicsToday, Mar 16, 2009
Robert Levine
Madama Butterfly
There are 69 complete recordings of Puccini's Madama Butterfly currently available. The title role has been recorded by such illustrious--and vocally and stylistically different--sopranos as Margaret Sheridan (1929-30), Toti dal Monte (1939), Renata Tebaldi (1951, 1958), Victoria de Los Angeles (1954, 1959), Maria Callas (1955), Anna Moffo (1958), Leontyne Price (1962), Renata Scotto (1966, 1978), and Mirella Freni (1974, 1988). Opulence of tone certainly does not guarantee a great reading; the most successful have been Sheridan, dal Monte, Callas, and Scotto. Angeles is simply gorgeous and the quality of the voice itself makes you believe her, but she misses the tragedy; Tebaldi and Price sound like divas as they skim the surface, albeit beautifully; Moffo is out of her league; and Freni is bogged down first by Karajan, and then Sinopoli.

The title role remains a favorite not only because its melodies are among the composer's most ravishing, but because she is the saddest character in all of opera, the most innocent and victimized girl/woman ever created, even among Puccini's collection of sweet things. And the soprano part can--and should be--a true star turn. Fifteen years old when we meet Cio-Cio-San, 18 when we watch her die, she touches our hearts like no other. The role is long and requires, particularly in the second act, reserves of power to ride over heavy orchestration. Attention to the text, phrasing, and coloring are crucial; Butterfly has many stories to tell and if we are not caught up with her emotionally, the opera does not work.

It was only a matter of time before Angela Gheorghiu turned to the role. At least on a recording, her voice turns out to be the right size; I suspect that live, in the opera house, "Che tua madre", the sighting of the ship, and the death scene would exhaust her. Gheorghiu's top notes are brilliant--she nails the big (optional) D-flat at the close of Butterly's entrance--but her voice has an inherently dark hue. She sings "small" and modestly without overdoing the girlish quality in the first act; she's wonderfully playful when asked her age, and, alone with Pinkerton, she's sweet and flirtatious.

She takes on a noticeably more serious tone when describing her conversion--she has made a very adult decision--and ends the narration with a fervent cry of "Amore mio". From then until the act's close, her passion grows organically, she's entirely swept up in the Love Duet, boundlessly enthusiastic and looking forward to the rest of her life. We have seen the woman emerge from the girl.

Her first words in the second act tell us that something is amiss, that she has been changed forever. The three years have sapped all eagerness from her and Gheorghiu uses a gray tone. "Un bel di" is a fine monodrama, without perhaps the searing self-delusion of Callas or Scotto, but a fine study nonetheless. She is modest and upbeat with the arrival of Sharpless, but it is only with "E questo? E questo?" and "Che tua madre"--Butterfly as mother--that we see her frailty pushed to the edge. Her anger with Goro is white hot; the build-up after she sees the ship is filled with hope, and her exhaustion thereafter is well-earned. The last act finds her sad, dignified, and, in the death scene, overwhelmed by darkness and grief. In sum, it is a wonderful portrayal, and also, as pure singing, quite stunning.

Young tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Pinkerton is in fine company--Gigli, Björling, di Stefano, Pavarotti, Bergonzi, and Gedda come to mind. The role is unsympathetic; no matter how you slice it, he's a cad, but some tenors can convince us of his charm and/or sincere regret. Gigli, Gedda, and di Stefano seem like good guys with nice senses of humor; Björling and Bergonzi are very serious; and Pavarotti's tenderness and liquid tone make us believe that he may actually be in love.

Of course the redemption comes in the last act--the measure is precisely how filled with regret and self-loathing Pinkerton seems in his "Addio". Kaufmann, a terrific singing actor who takes great care with dynamics and phrasing, is not particularly lighthearted in Act 1, but he clearly sweeps Butterfly off her feet with his infatuation and sex appeal. His "Addio" is big and filled with misery. Purists may argue that Kaufmann's voice is not echt-Italian; I would counter by saying that his Pinkerton is one of the best-sung on discs.

Enkelejda Shkosa is a supportive, sympathetic Suzuki, perhaps a bit too emotional at times, and the Sharpless of Fabio Capitanucci is a bit pale. Gregory Bonfatti's Goro is scene-stealing and colorful, and the rest of the ensemble is excellent.

Antonio Pappano leads an enormously effective and affecting performance. The first several minutes of the opera have all the hustle and bustle they should, with carefree Pinkerton taking in all that is new and Goro's keenness playing into his desires. The total mood change when Butterfly is heard offstage is stunningly handled; Pappano gives the scene an almost holy atmosphere. And when the couple is flirting, a bit later, their easy give-and-take is underscored with the tiny orchestral exoticisms that Puccini has supplied.

As the opera goes on and darkness descends, Pappano emphasizes the lower strings and invariably finds the right tempos for each situation and mood change. The last act, from the moment when Butterfly realizes what is going on, is actually suspenseful. With the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia at its absolute best, this is a beautiful reading of the score, one that stands up well with the best.

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