Opera News, 5/2009
Madama Butterfly
The success of a Butterfly performance — whether on disc or in the opera house — comes down to the protagonista, who remains onstage almost the entire time, from her entrance on, and never stops singing. Angela Gheorghiu, an exclusive EMI recording artist who has yet to sing Cio-Cio-San onstage, is the prime attraction in this new set, which joins an EMI company catalogue already boasting classic performances starring Maria Callas, Victoria de los Angeles and Renata Scotto.

Happily, one can report that Gheorghiu is in excellent voice here, and she finds in this role a congenial persona, one that encourages the best in her singing. One might question Gheorghiu's ability to tackle this part with her rather light instrument, but I don't see it that way. Many light voices have triumphed in this role — among them Scotto, a Gilda and a Lucia; Toti Dal Monte; Licia Albanese; Dorothy Kirsten; and Geraldine Farrar, the first Cio-Cio-San at the Met — but all of these ladies seem to have favored forward vocal production, with vivid word coloration. Gheorghiu's recent Puccini efforts at the Met have been delivered in a voice produced in the back of the throat, with a muffled quality in the middle register and nary a forward vowel. As Cio-Cio-San, Gheorghiu is encouraged to project youth and ingenuousness, and the means by which she achieves this encourage a vocal approach far more suitable to operas of this period, and of Puccini in particular. Words are stressed through the opening of vowels, and line is achieved without the sacrifice of text.

Gheorghiu offers a detailed portrayal, trying to balance a bit of the voce bianca approach with her full, darker sound. She does not make the choice to use a "baby voice" in Act I and then abruptly "mature" after that but remains touchingly delicate for the rest of the opera, her voice only occasionally taking on a darker, more guttural quality. The entrance is beautifully sung, although the optional D-flat is managed successfully rather than floated; "Ieri son salita" is less than hypnotic, but the love duet features many lovely moments. "Un bel dì" is sensitively narrated and superbly vocalized, but "Che tua madre" is a bit short on impact and, like the death scene, could benefit from performing experience in the role. (There are apparently no plans for that.) Still, for a first reading this is a very fine effort.

The supporting cast is strong. Jonas Kaufmann is sensitive to the text and offers abundant musical nuance, but one wishes the tenor had a bit more youthful squillo in his voice: its baritonal quality is at odds with Pinkerton's callow nature and compromises some of the vocal moments that cry out for a tenorial ring. Fabio Capitanucci is a superb Sharpless — stylish, sympathetic and with a handsome sound, dark enough to nearly balance Kaufmann. Enkelejda Shkosa is dramatically alert as Suzuki but sounds somewhat tremulous through much of the role — one that, it must be said, is not the most grateful of "sings" for most mezzos. In the smaller roles, standouts include Gregory Bonfatti, as Goro, and Roberto Valentini, who makes the most of Yamadori's sumptuous lines. Raymond Aceto, a fine bass with a powerful voice, has presence to burn as the Bonze.

Antonio Pappano is a favored collaborator of the diva's, and a musician whose recorded performances are often notable for their excellent pacing and wonderful orchestral color. It's no surprise that the Act II, Scene 2 prelude is stunning. Elsewhere, the maestro draws theatrical colors from the orchestra, balancing the intimate with the showy. Gheorghiu fans will be certain to want this, but the 1966 Scotto set, conducted by John Barbirolli, remains the prime recommendation for those seeking a first Butterfly for their CD collections.

  www.jkaufmann.info back top