Musicweb International
Robert J Farr
Madama Butterfly
Never say never … ever! It was not that long ago that EMI announced the supposed last ever studio recording of an opera. They reckoned the economics just didn't make sense and with accountants as much in charge of recording policy as Artist and Repertoire departments, it appeared a sane judgement. With opera recordings involving orchestras, expensive conductors and singers, not to mention venues, the sessions often spreading into several weeks it was to be expected. Over twenty-five years ago Decca announced the first million pound opera recording. On that basis, even in the halcyon days of the CD boom, getting the money back was not merely long term but problematic; the word “ever” was even more appropriate. One swallow does not make a spring and it would be wrong to assume this present studio recording presages a change of policy to the old ways. The days of the 1950s through to the 1980s are probably gone for ever - certainly on that scale. That was when the recording majors accommodated their contracted artists' desires to set down their interpretations of roles for posterity, all in as near perfect studio conditions and acoustics as possible. The take-off of DVD live recordings, particularly of opera, with all the pluses of frisson and the distractions of stage noise and applause, filled some gaps. Otherwise there have been one or two opera recordings made in the studio from the likes of Opera Rara, who benefit from the support of the Sir Peter Moores Foundation, or more often following or contemporaneous with live performances.

The days of the early LP, when recording companies thought nothing of reprising an opera recording within a short period, brought four versions of Madama Butterfly from EMI within a decade, a mere five years between each and two with unlikely divas in the title role. The first and third featured the light-voiced Victoria de Los Angeles, first in mono and then stereo. Maria Callas, who had not sung the role on stage at the time and only ever did so on three occasions, quickly followed the mono version. The final one featured the stronger-voiced Renata Scotto in an all-Italian cast recorded under John Barbirolli recorded in Rome in 1964. Barbirolli, like Pappano on this recording, was of Italian descent and also had a distinguished career in the opera pit. Regrettably his skill as a recording conductor of the genre was realised too late by EMI. Pappano on the other hand was signed up even before he became supremo at Covent Garden. The company added Angela Gheorghiu to their contracted artist roster, signing her from Decca to join her husband the tenor Roberto Alagna. The trio of conductor, tenor and soprano made a number of widely admired recordings. These included Puccini's La Rondine, and Tosca, which became the soundtrack of the later film, and Massenet's Werther and Manon before EMI announced the 'last' of their studio recordings.

Pappano, like Barbirolli has a feel for Puccini's music, balancing the tragic drama of the story with its more lyrical lines. Meanwhile Gheorghiu has never sung the eponymous role on stage. In that she would join not only Callas, but also a quite distinguished list of divas that set down their interpretation before recording the role. In Gheorghiu's recent combined CD and DVD issue titled My Puccini I found her Butterfly a weaker interpretation than the other ladies represented in the collection. I wondered if this was a consequence of lack of stage experience. That is as maybe; what is certainly the case in this recording is that the soprano gives a very different, all encompassing, portrayal of a role that is not the easiest to bring off on record or on stage.

In Belasco's play, Butterfly is only fourteen or fifteen years of age. In some opera recordings this has tempted interpreters of the eponymous role into affecting a younger voice. But a young-sounding voice cannot surmount Puccini's orchestration satisfactorily nor fully express the more stressful emotions that Butterfly experiences. The lyrical love music of act 1 is the easiest to portray and Gheorghiu sails through it with ease. She fills the lines with fulsome, rounded tone that is very easy on the ear. She does not make any attempt at a child-like voice, bringing her full range of tonal colour and expression to the scene (CD 1 trs.14-17). For me the first part of act two sorts the lasting Butterflies from the ephemera. Butterfly herself has to accommodate the whole gamut of emotions, first as she tries to convince the sceptical Suzuki that Pinkerton will return, (CD 1 trs.19-20) and then receives the American Consul, Sharpless, and refuses to let him convey his somewhat different message (CD 2 trs.1-7). Even as Gheorghiu sings this scene, does her Butterfly really believe or does she have inner doubts? This is where Gheorghiu's interpretation is at a different level to the extract on the recital DVD. But then Butterfly's spirits rise as she spots a ship in the harbour. She believes again. Butterfly and Suzuki await the dawn. They share the beauty of the flower duet as they prepare the home for Pinkerton's anticipated arrival by spreading flower petals, their voices intertwining in Puccini's melody and even Suzuki believing again (CD 2 tr10). Then Pappano and the chorus weave a gently even lingering and poignant Humming Chorus (CD 2 tr.13).

In the opening of the last scene (CD 2 tr.14) Pappano really allows his band to get at Puccini's near strident orchestral introduction, wholly appropriate for the drama to come. So too is his treatment of the orchestral role in Butterfly's first attempt to take her own life, having read her father's inscription on the knife: “He dies with honour who cannot live with honour” and before Suzuki thrusts the young child into the room (Trs.24-25). Here he balances modulation and tempo perfectly to match Butterfly's words to herself. It is in this conclusion that the whole sad tale unfolds: a suave American is interested in cheap easy sex rather than facing the truth and reality of the Consul's words. Earlier Butterfly sleeps with fatigue but in hope and expectation as Suzuki's fears are proved correct. She opens the door to Pinkerton and Sharpless, sees another woman and is told that they have come to make arrangements for the future of Butterfly's child (CD 2 trs.18-20). Shkosa's Suzuki with her well-coloured mezzo tones really comes into her own, already having characterised excellently, as the two women wait in their vigil. She has to break the news and share in the agony of explaining to Butterfly who Kate is and why she has come (trs.23-24). But it is Gheorghiu's singing and characterisation of Butterfly's many emotions in this last act that are quite superb. Never once does she let her voice loosen as she interprets Butterfly's tragic emotions. The story reaches its climax with Butterfly's suicide in front of her blindfolded son (trs.25-26).

As Lieutenant Pinkerton, the guy who thinks he can buy a girl and then cast her aside, Kaufmann sings with clear, open and heroic tone. Nobody, except perhaps Bergonzi on his two recordings, can make Pinkerton anything but a loathsome cad. Kaufmann accepts that reality and plays him for what Pinkerton is, a macho Yank, and does so convincingly. As the hapless fall guy who has to do Pinkerton's dirty work, and then pick up the pieces, the Sharpless of Fabio Capitanucci is steady and well characterised, if a little throaty. But as in few other operas in the repertoire, success depends on the singing and characterisation of a single role, that of the eponymous Madama Butterfly. It is evident that Angela Gheorghiu has put much effort and time into preparing the role. Her interpretation is of the highest class in terms of vocal beauty and in characterisation. Her conception of Butterfly is no pubescent ingénue, but a young woman who knows a little of life's trials and temptations. No need for girlish tones. She is lyric-voiced when appropriate but always with body and colour in her voice. She is always capable of riding Puccini's more dramatic moments without spread or loss of tonal beauty. Given the considerable challenges of setting her interpretation down without the benefit of stage experience, it is an even more impressive achievement and can stand alongside any other diva on record. Perhaps she and the team involved might be tempted to use the soundtrack for a film, as with Tosca. This would be infinitely preferable to Gheorghiu stressing her lovely voice for dramatic effect in one of the larger theatres.

This recording should make commercial sense for EMI. If it does, then it will not be another 'last' studio recording of an opera.

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