• CD Review: Madama Butterfly (1959, Santini)

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    Madama Butterfly

    1959, EMI

    (Victoria de los Angeles, Jussi Björling, Miriam Pirazzini, Mario Sereini, Piero de Palma; Coro del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma; Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, cond. Gabriele Santini)

     

    This recording isn’t the definitive Butterfly, but it still counts as a classic, thanks mainly to the performance of Victoria de los Angeles in the title role. True, she lacks the power and ease in the upper register that other Cio-Cio-Sans display, and may have been in better voice in her earlier recording of the part. But all the same, her honeyed, lightly shaded, creamily feminine soprano is a quintessentially romantic sound, ideal for Puccini. Furthermore, she brings the role to life with a hundred deft touches of warmth, joy, fear, anger, coquettishness and aching grief. She may not reach the heights of searing anguish that others do, but she neither tries nor, arguably, needs to. Hers is an exquisitely fragile, intimate characterization, filled, in Butterfly’s own words, with “small things, humble and quiet” and “a tenderness that’s gentle yet profound as the sky, as the waves of the sea.”

     

    The other performance that makes this Butterfly noteworthy belongs to Jussi Björling, in his last studio recording before his untimely death. His robustly silvery tone is perfectly suited to Pinkerton’s swaggering yet luxurious music, and though he lacks the vivid vocal acting of others, he still sings with emotional involvement. The rest of the cast provides nothing more (and nothing less) than support for the two leads: unexceptional yet adequate. Miriam Pirazzini is a robust-toned Suzuki who sings with warmth and ease, though she conveys little anguish beyond a few unconvincing sobs. Mario Sereni brings a beautiful timbre to Sharpless, but his voice is too light to make a particularly strong impression in the role. The only excellent supporting performance is Piero de Palma’s eternally colorful Goro. Gabriele Santini’s conducting is never inspired, but still does justice to the sumptuous beauty of the score. I applaud him for handling Butterfly’s last aria with intimate anguish instead of blood and thunder, in keeping with de los Angeles’s talents – it almost compensates for the jarring cut he makes to the opening of said aria.

     

    Compared to others, this Butterfly doesn’t soar, but nonetheless the performances of de los Angeles and Björling make it a charming, moving experience. Without a doubt, it belongs in every passionate Puccini lover’s collection.

     

    Music Clip: The Love Duet

    • You never forget your first Butterfly recording, and this was mine. A few years ago I undertook an informal survey of several Butterfly recordings and decided while this was still my favorite “modern” (i.e., stereo) one, my absolute favorite was the old Toti Dal Monte set with Gigli. It’s old-fashioned to be sure, but she’s really something special. In the process of doing my survey, I was kind of surprised to realize I have a definite preference for lighter-voiced Cio-Cio-Sans. My favorite “live” turned out to be a Met broadcast with Teresa Stratas!

      • I prefer lighter-voiced Butterflies too: ironically, since my first was Raina Kabaivanska and my first on sound recording was Renata Tebaldi.

        It’s been a few years since I’ve listened to the Toti dal Monte set. It’s probably about time I gave it a revisit!

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