The Sunday Times, 1 March 2009
Hugh Canning
The new Madama Butterfly with Angela Gheorghiu
A new studio recording of Butterfly makes full use of Angela Gheorghiu’s pulling power
The end of the classical recording industry has been predicted so often in the past half century, it comes as something of a surprise that, this week, EMI is issuing a brand-new version of Puccini’s already much-recorded Madama Butterfly, one of the bread-and-butter works in every opera company’s repertoire. It is EMI’s first studio recording of a complete mainstream opera since Antonio Pappano conducted Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with Placido Domingo, Nina Stemme and Royal Opera House forces in 2004. At the time, the company’s outgoing vice-president for artists and repertoire, Peter Alward, declared it would be the last of its kind. The future of opera on disc would be live from opera houses for DVD, with record executives losing control over casting to theatre management. It looked like Armageddon, the end of an era.

Yet, last July, Pappano and a hand-picked cast, headed by EMI’s house diva, the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, and the newly crowned German star tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, came together to record Puccini’s “Japanese tragedy” with the conductor’s Roman team, the Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, in the Italian capital’s new Parco della Musica.

After a week of recording, Pappano still couldn’t believe it was all happening. “Even two days before we started, I thought I was gonna get the call from EMI saying, ‘Look, we can’t do this, it’s gonna cost too much.’ But we didn’t get that call. I was shocked. They came to their senses about how to record Angela in a complete opera. She has a natural affinity for Puccini.”

The high-risk economics of opera recordings — and one has to question whether, had this Butterfly recording been scheduled for 2009, it would have happened at all — clearly made Pappano sceptical, even though he is one of the few contemporary mid- career conductors who can boast a catalogue of more than 10 complete operas, as well as several orchestral albums. He is one of the more pragmatic maestros of the post-Herbert von Karajan era — he doesn’t think extravagantly cast recordings are a divine right — and his realism has forced him to break a promise he made on becoming the Royal Opera’s music director in 2002.

“When I went to the ROH, I told the orchestra I would not make opera recordings elsewhere. I made Tosca and Il trovatore with them, and even though the Tristan was supposed to be made with the Bavarian Radio Symphony in Munich, I said to Placido \: ‘I cannot and will not do that. I have to do this in London with the ROH orchestra.’ That ended up costing £450,000, which is normal for a four-CD opera. Frightening.”

For this Butterfly, many of the overheads are absorbed into the Accademia’s annual budget. “Why?” Pappano asks rhetorically. “Because we have the hall, we have the recording studio downstairs and we have an orchestra that somehow managed to get this into their annual work schedule. I would have liked to have done it at Covent Garden, but the schedule became so dense that we couldn’t make it work.

“That said, the chance to do an Italian opera, and perhaps Puccini’s most symphonic apart from La fanciulla del west, was irresistible. In the 1950s, this orchestra was a recording factory. So, historically, it means a lot to me to bring an opera recording back here.”

Pappano admits that his relationship with Gheorghiu in the theatre has been stormy, but says she is his favourite soprano for discs. “Everyone knows we’ve had our battles, but in the studio we have always been ham and eggs,” he says.

Gheorghiu says that the feeling is mutual. “When I first met Pappano, I immediately thought: ‘This is the man I want to make my recordings with, because I really enjoy his way of working and his understanding of opera.’ In studio sessions, he always makes me feel I am giving a ‘live’ performance.”

Butterfly is a role Gheorghiu has yet to sing on stage — its length and vocal are such that, like Mirella Freni, who made two recordings and a film, she may never do so — but this is already an established pattern. She recorded Puccini’s La rondine and Tosca before playing them live.

“I prefer that, because I think there is more spontaneity, more freshness,” she says. “I think the more you do a role, you end up by copying yourself. It started with La trav-iata [which Decca recorded live during the first run of the Royal Opera’s 1994 production, in which Gheorghiu made her role debut], and I thought at the time, ‘I like this.’ ”

Her first Traviatas propelled her into the front rank of international stars, and her fame and reputation went galactic when she met and married the recently widowed Roberto Alagna. They soon became “opera’s most romantic couple” and went on to make most of their complete recordings, as well as many theatre appearances, together. For the first time in a decade, Gheorghiu has a new leading man, Kaufmann, who, she says, was her first choice for the part of the handsome but caddish American naval officer who marries his Japanese child-bride, abandons her and returns three years later with a new American wife to reclaim their infant.

“I saw Jonas in a DVD from the Zurich Opera,” Gheorghiu explains. “I was looking for a tenor for my Traviata at the [New York] Met, then, when Roberto was not free to do the revival of La rondine at Covent Garden, I said to them, ‘Well, why not Jonas?’ That was actually the first time I sang with him. The Met Traviata was later.”

I watch them record the famous love duet, the climax of the opening act, and though they are relaxed in each other’s company, there doesn’t seem to be the same chemistry she enjoyed with Alagna. Kaufmann says this was deliberate on his part. His conception of the part is more thought-through than the traditional, stock Italian-tenor interpretation.

“My philosophy is to try to search for a side to my own character that approximates the one I have to play. After we had recorded the love duet, Angela said: ‘You should be more passionate.’ But I’m not, that’s the point. Pinkerton is cold, calculating.”

Even so, it’s evident that Pappano wants a bit more ardour. When Kaufmann sings the ecstatic words of the duet Vieni, vieni (Come to me) in rehearsal, Pappano cries: “Go on, go on!” Kaufmann sings the notes, but Pappano wants more freedom of expression.

“What I love about Tony,” Kaufmann says, “is that although he is very precise, he doesn’t strive for perfection for the sake of perfection. Perfection can be clinical, so he sacrifices it for a real feeling of making music. If it sounds too ‘correct’, it’s dead.”

Pappano’s love for singers shines through in his encouragement of his stars. He is also demanding. Kaufmann, who like Gheorghiu has never sung in Butterfly on stage, has difficulty getting an intricate ensemble passage in the Pinkerton-Sharpless duet absolutely right, but Pappano solves the problem.

“It took me a while to figure out why it was happening, but then I realised he was singing the first three notes legato [smoothly, broadly] and the two energies were incompatible. Once I got these energies on the right track, all of a sudden it just locked in. Jonas is smart that way.”

Both conductor and tenor acknowledge that they wouldn’t be in the studio without Gheorghiu’s presence — she is probably the most instantly recognisable voice among today’s leading sopranos. She has the essential Puccinian quality of morbidezza — literally softness, with connotations of fragility and vulnerability. For Pappano, that’s the main reason for recording a piece already richly represented in the catalogue, in versions starring Maria Callas, Victoria de los Angeles, Renata Tebaldi, Freni and Renata Scotto.

“This is a big role for Angela, and she wanted to record all the highlights first, to make sure the important solos were good,” he says. “But, of course, every scene in Butterfly is a highlight, and she is in almost all of them. Now is the right time for her: she’s got the ‘guts’ for the role.”

I say Pappano is lucky to be able to record such lavish projects in the current climate. “Lucky?” he chuckles. “It’s a miracle.”

 back top