This has always been one of my three favourite recordings of Madama Butterfly (the others being Callas/Karajan and De Los Angeles/Gavazzeni), and listening to it again today has been a most moving experience.
Though Sir John Barbirolli conducted a good deal of opera during his career, this and the Otello with James McCracken are, I think, the only studio examples of his work in the field, and I’ve always thought of this recording as being as much his as Scotto’s, which is not quite the case with the two aforementioned Callas and De Los Angeles sets. Barbirolli’s love for the score is evident in every bar, and he reveals many incidental details that sometimes get lost in more opulent readings, whilst he never loses track of the score’s ebb and flow. The Rome orchestra, though not quite on the level of those in Vienna and Milan, nonetheless play brilliantly for him.
He has at his disposal a uniquely Italianate cast, who all sing wonderfully off the words. Scotto, 32 at the time (oddly enough about the same age as Callas and De Los Angeles at the time of their recordings) is a superb Butterfly and presents from start to finish a fully rounded character. The microphone placing doesn’t always flatter her, and, just occasionally, one is aware of the intellect behind the characterisation, but she is still one of the most pathetically moving Butterflies on disc, even if she lacks a little of De Los Angeles’s natural charm.
Bergonzi is an ardently lyrical Pinkerton, maybe not quite as charming as Di Stefano with De Los Angeles, but singing with glorious, golden tone, and less stiff than Bjoerling who sings Pinkerton on De Los Angeles’s second recording. Panerai, who was a late replacement for Peter Glossop, is a superbly inciteful and sympathetic Sharpless and there is terrific support from the likes of Anna Di Stasio as Suzuki, Paolo Montarsolo as the Bonze and Piero de Palma as Goro.
Ultimately my favourite recording would still be Callas/Karajan but I find it so emotionally, so intensely shattering, that I can only take it once in a while (rather like Vickers’s Tristan). On the other hand, sonically, the stereo sound here is a great improvement on the boxy mono of that recording, though, in turn, not quite on the level of the glorious sound afforded Karajan on his second Decca recording with Freni and Pavarotti, which remains a first choice for many, I know.
There are other superb recordings, not least the early one with Dal Monte and Gigli, Tebaldi with Serafin, and Gheorghiu with Pappano. The opera has certainly been very lucky on disc, but my top three remain unchallenged.