The New Zealand Herald, Apr 14, 2009
William Dart
Puccini - Madama Butterfly
It is difficult to resist the power of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Its premiere may have been one of the operatic disasters of all time - his rivals packed La Scala with hecklers - but even that austere critic Theodor Adorno acknowledged the impact that childhood memories of the opera, thanks to 78rpm records, had on him.

Would that Adorno had lived to hear EMI's new recording of the work, undertaken to celebrate the composer's 150th birthday last year.

Shrewd casting has Angela Gheorghiu as Butterfly opposite Jonas Kaufmann as her Yankee seducer, and Music's patron saint herself must be smiling down at the heavenly performances that conductor Antonio Pappano draws from the Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.

Madama Butterfly is more than quaint orientalism. The plight and treatment of its heroine touches more sensitive buttons after the colonising horrors in the Far East, culminating in the Vietnam War. It is not difficult to reassess Puccini's love story against this backdrop, which is just what Miss Saigon attempted in its tawdry way.

Pappano certainly approaches it all with an unflinching sense of drama. The opening pages have a fury that, on film, could accompany a chopper raid in 'Nam; yet Butterfly's first appearance places her voice in a diaphanous wash of women's voices and harp.

Back in 2000, Angela Gheorgiu boasted that "with the colour of my voice I can do everything", going on to express her concerns about the stamina test of singing this opera on stage; in the studio there are no such worries.

From the breathless ecstasies of "Ancora un passo or via" to the harrowing acceptance of the final "Con onor muore", with huge orchestral chords slashing about her like hara-kiri swords, could any soprano rival the intensity of this Romanian diva?

Kaufmann has conceived Pinkerton as a ruthless cad and the German singer is in thrilling voice, even if his characterisation does not quite depose memories of Giuseppe di Stefano.

Smaller roles are finely sketched, with special plaudits going to to Enkelejda Shkosa's Suzuki although the final triumph is Puccini's, thanks to Pappano's unswervingly dramatic conception and a recording that does it every justice.

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