Record Guide: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

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Beloved, controversial, perhaps even hated – Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, premiered in 1904 and later revised several times, leaves no one untouched. Seen by some critics as racist, by others as a dramatic masterpiece with one of the most powerful final scenes in opera literature. The opera also marked a new departure in Puccini’s compositional technique, abandoning the clearly defined arias in favour of a more symphonic approach, integrating vocal and orchestral sound. Madama Butterfly has also been recorded extensively since the early days of the gramophone. This is not surprising, given its sweeping melodies and emotional power.

One of the earliest recordings is Oliviero de Fabritiis from the Rome Opera 1939. It features Toti dal Monte in the title role, a unique interpretation in which her vocal characterisation is that of a child. It is a controversial interpretation, which in the long run seems rather artificial. All the more impressive is Beniamino Gigli’s Pinkerton, perhaps unrivalled on record. De Fabritiis’ interpretation is as passionate and intense as ever.

Another early studio recording worth mentioning is that from the Metropolitan Opera (Columbia, 1949), conducted by Max Rudolf. Eleonor Steber gives an intensely dramatic performance in the title role, and Richard Tucker offers everything one would expect from a Pinkerton. Definitely a must for any Madama Butterfly collection.

The best Butterfly on record for me is Renata Tebaldi, a role that suits her perfectly, where she excels in beautiful singing and dramatic nerve. It is hard to imagine a more melodious portrayal of Cio-Cio-San. In the recording studio, there were two versions of her on Decca. The first was made in 1951 with the Santa Cecilia in Rome, conducted by the sure-footed Alberto Erede. Tebaldi’s interpretation here is more youthful and her voice a little fresher than on the later recording. Giuseppe Campora impresses as Pinkerton, and the rest of the cast is excellent, though not up to the best recordings.

Tebaldi’s second recording, made in stereo for Decca in 1958 with Tullio Serafin, is one of the very best ever made. Tebaldi’s interpretation is overwhelming in its beauty and intensity. Pinkerton is sung by Carlo Bergonzi, who performs the role with extraordinary elegance and finesse. The veteran Tullio Serafin brings every conceivable warmth and understanding to the music in a brilliant audio quality by Decca.

Perhaps a lesser-known recording from the 1950s is that of Clara Petrella in the title role. Her interpretation is unique in many ways, dramatic yet beautiful in sound. Definitely one of the best Butterflies on record. She also has impressive partners in Ferrucio Tagliavini and Giuseppe Taddei. The orchestral playing of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Torono della RAI under Angelo Questa is skilful and Cetra’s sound is of acceptable mono quality.

In the 1950s and 60s there were several fine recordings of the opera on record. Among these, Gianandrea Gavazzeni’s 1955 mono recording for EMI with the Rome Opera Orchestra stands out, with Victoria de Los Angeles making a brilliant Cio-Cio-San, with warmth in her voice. Giuseppe di Stefano gives a passionate and intense Pinkerton and Tito Gobbi’s Sharpless is hard to beat, all under Gavazzeni’s intense direction.

Just a few years later, in 1959, de Los Angeles recorded the role again, this time in stereo with Giuseppe Santini and the same orchestra for EMI, with Jussi Björling doing a rare, beautiful Pinkerton. Two classic performances that could hardly be more beautiful, even if Santini’s interpretation seems a little routine compared to Gavazzeni’s passionate version.

Of course, Maria Callas must be mentioned as Butterfly, a role she sang only once on stage. She may not have been an ideal Butterfly, but with her intelligence and incisiveness she achieved a unique interpretation of the role that is overwhelming to listen to, with superb support from the Orchestra of La Scala and Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 1955). As Pinkerton we hear Nicolai Gedda, a lyrical and sensitive performance, but perhaps a little un-Italian in character.

A highlight in any collection of Madama Butterfly recordings is undoubtedly Anna Moffo’s interpretation with Erich Leinsdorf and the Rome Opera Orchestra on Sony from 1957. Moffo’s singing is breathtaking, beautiful, sensual and dramatically compelling. She is also supported by an excellent Cesare Valletti as Pinkerton. Leinsdorf’s interpretation is unsentimental with an excellent overall effect, much better than the later version with Leontyne Price, who was better suited as Tosca than as Cio-Cio-San.

The best recording of the same period, along with Serafin’s, is Sir John Barbirolli’s, also on EMI, again with the Rome Opera Orchestra, from 1966. Only Herbert von Karajan and Giuseppe Sinopoli can match Barbirolli’s interpretation of the opera, which has a unique warmth and humanity, and Renata Scotto’s Butterfly is one of the best, sensual and powerful. Her voice is also more sonorous here than on her later recording with Lorin Maazel for CBS/Sony, where a certain harshness can be heard. Carlo Bergonzi’s Pinkerton is again of the highest order, both sophisticated and passionate. Also worthy of mention is Rolando Panerai’s Sharpless, the best performance of the role on record.

The obvious first choice, of course, is Herbert von Karajan’s 1974 Decca recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, starring Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti. A classic for all time. Karajan’s conducting has a virtuosity, a sensual beauty and a drama like no other. Everything is at stake, a drama of life and death. Freni’s portrayal of Butterfly is poignant and emotionally compelling. Pavarotti is ideal as Pinkerton, with his beautiful tone and Italian warmth. And a brilliant Decca sound quality.

A review of the opera in later days shows that there are only two recordings that can match all these fine interpretations from the golden age of opera in the 1950s and 60s. Of course, it is impossible to recommend a recording on the basis of the orchestral playing in an opera alone, but in the case of Giuseppe Sinopoli I am tempted to do so. His 1988 Deutsche Grammophon version with the Philharmonia Orchestra has a symphonic breadth that is unique. Although his tempi are slow, the interpretation has power and intensity. Mirella Freni again takes the title role, not quite as charged as with Karajan, but still a thoughtful and convincing performance. José Carreras, as so often on record from that period, sounds a little strained, having taken on a few too heavy roles earlier in his career. Nevertheless, a generally convincing performance as Pinkerton.

The other recording is Antonio Pappano’s for Warner from 2009 with the Orchestra of the Santa Cecilia in Rome. Here, too, the strength lies to some extent in the orchestral playing and Pappano’s idiomatic approach to Puccini. But Angela Gheorghiu’s Butterfly is also particularly convincing, a fresh and spirited interpretation. The big minus, however, is Jonas Kaufmann’s Pinkerton, which sounds grey and ugly. As far from Bergonzi’s lyrical, well-articulated beauty as you can get.


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