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Puccini's "Madam Butterfly"

Japanese tragedy in a kimono of recordings

Puccini's oriental fantasy had its beginnings with Madam Butterfly, a work that has remained intensely popular over the years. The story has all the makings of a classic tragedy although it is occasionally far fetched. Still, all this does not attract from the recordability of the opera on disc although it has been somewhat difficult to bring off occasionally. Undoubtedly, the high drama that permeates the work is occasionally hard to translate onto record but we can rest content with quite a few satisfying versions on disc.

Early EMI Legends

Angel 56298

Although heavily cut and in indifferent mono sound, Maria Callas' version is undisputedly a classic. This is Callas at her brilliant best, singing like a lioness and the depth of feeling behind her diction is truly unique. She is matched by her team of colleagues; Nicolai Gedda, Lucia Danieli and Mario Boriello, all singing with aplomb and fastidious dedication. The young Herbert von Karajan holds all together with palpable tension and the vintage La Scala orchestra is on top form; surely an added bonus to what is already a legendary performance (Angel 56298). In somewhat improved sound, EMI re-recorded the opera with Victoria de los Angeles, Jussi Björling, Miriam Pirazzini and Mario Sereni. This time, the orchestra of the Rome Opera and Gabriele Santini are somewhat off-key although the recording is recommendable for the wonderful los Angeles on peak form. This was recently available on a double CFP album but EMI has reissued the recording at mid price and with better packaging and notes. [ Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe ]

Decca Enters The Fray

Decca/London 440230

Almost contemporaneously with EMI, Decca issued their 'Butterfly' sets in mono and in stereo. The first one has Renata Tebaldi in the company of Campora, Rankin and Inghilleri and is superbly conducted by Alberto Erede who penetrates the score to the letter. I am not very comfortable with the balance of the Roman orchestra and the brass blare out slightly, certainly an evil that can easily be condoned when listening to such a fine recording (Decca/London 440230). [ Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe ]

Decca/London 452594

The second stereo Decca set has Tebaldi again, certainly in finer and more ebullient voice with the equally great Carlo Bergonzi as Pinkerton. This time, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia Orchestra is conducted by Tullio Serafin, a master Verdian and I would certainly plump for this recording in the mid-price range. The earlier Decca is now available on a double CD set at reduced price but without libretto (Decca/London 452594). [ Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe ]

Later Stereo Sets

Angel 69654

EMI's Japanese love affair continued with Sir John Barbirolli's rather unique set that is filled with all the romantic inflexions of this operatic genius. Renata Scotto is an inspired Butterfly and Carlo Bergonzi is (possibly) in even finer voice than he was on the Decca recording. Secondary roles are taken by Rolando Panerai and Anna di Stasio, both sturdy stalwarts of the operatic scene (Angel 69654). Barbirolli's way with the Rome Orchestra is divine and EMI's recording is quite a cracker for its age. The set retails at mid price and those who love the Englishman's way with Puccini should better snap up before the deletion axe falls. [ Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan ]

Decca/London 417577

Decca still field their star Butterfly at full price. Much has been said about luxury casting but few could beat Luciano Pavarotti at the peak of his powers in 1974. Add that to Mirella Freni and Christa Ludwig and you have a triptych of incredible, and probably unrepeatable, excellence. The opera is lavishly spread over three discs but with Karajan and the VPO in undisputed top form, this is really the set to have. It has been in the catalogue on CD for thirteen years and is certainly the most luxurious 'Butterfly' around (Decca/London 417577). [ Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe ]

DGG 423567

If you require up-front digital recording, you are not exactly spoilt for choice where Butterfly is concerned. There is just one recording from the digital domain that is worthy of mention and that comes on DG. Freni makes her second, more overtly matron appearance and she is joined by José Carreras, Teresa Berganza and Juan Pons. The excellent Ambrosian Singers and Philharmonia Orchestra are conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli, who also spreads the work onto three CDs (DG 423567). It is a splendid recording but does not match the excitement and frission of the Tebaldi sets or the luxurious beauty of the Decca Karajan not to mention the awesome Callas rendition that remains essential. [ Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe ]

Conclusions and reminiscences – a few extras

These are not the only recordings of Butterfly available but the selective collector would feel safe with any one of these. It is hard to pick a definitive recording but I feel that the Callas should not be missed for its dramatic power whilst the Tebaldi stereo set has great singing throughout. Barbirolli is a unique exponent and the lavish Karajan set is surely tempting. There are other options on Naxos, and I'm sure that local patrons will berate me for omitting Miriam Gauci from the greats but I still feel that Rahbari's set does not live up to its promise. RCA have a fine set with Erich Leinsdorf and there is a Munich recording on Eurodisc that can easily hold the fort in the lower price range but a combination of Freni, Tebaldi and Callas should see anyone through his/her years enjoying the opera of the Japanese kimono until death do us part!

Copyright © 2002, Gerald Fenech.