The Scotto/Barbirolli Madama Butterfly

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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.

Callas sings Puccini Arias

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Recorded 15-18, 20-21 September 1954, Watford Town Hall, London

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

This is the first recital record I ever owned , and for some time the only recital record I owned. As such it has quite a lot of sentimental value for me. Most of the music was new to me at that time and I played it constantly. I got to know it so well that I can even now listen without libretto and mime the words. However, as I got older, my tastes changed. I got to love the music of Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti. I felt Callas’s gifts were wasted on Puccini, and so my first love got rather pushed aside. I tended not to listen to this recital quite so often.

To listen to it again now, in this fantastic new re-mastering from Warner (one almost feels as if Callas were in the room with you), was a moving experience and, from the first note, she had me riveted.

Most Puccini recitals tend to the samey, but Callas presents us with a different voice character in each opera. Of the roles represented here, she had at that time only sung Turandot on stage, though she would go on to sing Butterfly in Chicago in 1955. She also went on to record complete performances of Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, and Manon Lescaut, as well as Turandot (though a little too late in her career.

As usual Callas is the mistress of vocal characterisation. Manon, Butterfly, Mimi, Angelica, Lauretta, Liu and Turandot all emerge as completely different characters, but, even within a single aria, she can reveal some hidden depth within the character. Manon, tenderly regretful in In quelle trine moribide, gives way to passion and despair in Sola perduta abbandonata, a despair already hinted at in her voicing of un freddo che m’agghiaccia in the first aria. Butterfly’s wistful imagining of the return of Pinkerton is brilliantly charted, her death scene almost unbearably intense. Mimi is shy and withdrawn, but the warmth which Callas brings to the Ma quando vien lo sgelo section reveals Mimi’s capacity for selfless love.  Angelica’s resigned sadness gives way to a surprisingly sweet and cajoling Lauretta.

Quite the biggest contrast comes when she sings both Liu and Turandot. Liu’s arias are sung feelingly, but possibly with a bit too much muscle, and the ending of Signore ascolta doesn’t eclipse memories of Caballe or Schwarzkopf in the same piece, but Turandot’s In questa reggia is surely one of the best ever recorded. Callas at this time still had the power and security on top to ride its high-lying phrases; and please note she actually sings the words Gli enigmi sono tre on the phrase that takes her up to a top C. Most sopranos, Eva Turner included, reduce them to a vocalise. Furthermore the aria is filled with little details overlooked by most; the almost mystical way she launches the section beginning Principessa Lou-u- Ling, singing with mounting ardour until she vocally points her finger at Calaf with the phrase Un uomo como te. Almost regretful on the section O principe che a lunghe carovane, she strengthens her resolve again at io vendico su voi till her voice cries out with conviction at quell grido e quella morte. Would that she had recorded her complete Turandot at the same time. This is the greatest prize on the recital.

The one uncomfortable moment I remember from the recital (Angelica’s final floated high A) for some reason sounds far less wobbly here than it ever did before, and the voice in this re-mastering has enormous presence. Serafin, as ever, provides invaluable support.

A classic of the gramophone.

The Callas Karajan Madama Butterfly

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Recorded 1-6 August 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Well I’m a mess! To quote John Steane in his Gramophone review of the first CD issue of this set,

Still feeling the impact of that devastating final chord in the opera, I believe devoutly that Madama Butterfly is the most moving of all works for the stage, that this is the best recording of it, and that it is Callas’s greatest achievement on records. 

I may not go quite that far, but it does remind me how many times I think exactly that after listening to almost every one of Callas’s complete opera sets, so completely does she identify with each role that she sings.

Callas recorded the role of Butterfly a few months before her only stage appearances in the role in Chicago, in November 1955. It was also the occasion of one of the first major scandals of her career, when a process server tried to stuff a court summons into the belt of her kimono just after she exited the stage. Callas exploded, cameramen just happened to be there to record the exact moment she lost her temper, and the rest is history.

This recording also marked one of the three occasions on which Callas worked with Karajan, a powerful combination which also produced those famous La Scala Lucias, which were repeated in Berlin and Vienna, and the studio recording of Il Trovatore.

Now if you’re idea of a perfect Madama Butterfly  is one in which some gorgeous voices sing some beautiful tunes, bathed in lush orchestral sounds, which incidentally happen to accompany  the sad little story of a Japanese girl who ends up committing hari kari, then this recording is probably not for you. There have certainly been more beautifully sung Butterflies, but few that elevate it to the level of real tragedy on a par with those of Shakespeare and Euripides. Here we are treated to a cautionary tale, a moral tale if you like, of how even nice people can do terrible things unthinkingly, and how one thoughtless act can set in motion a whole chain of tragic events. It doesn’t always make for comfortable listening, but who said great art was meant to be comfortable?

Callas’s portrayal is full of miraculous detail, phrases, even single words given a significance you won’t hear in other performances. Take, for instance, the way she manages to suggest all Butterfly’s trust in Pinkerton at Ieri son salita, the final Amore mio sung with a conviction that makes it easy to understand her utter faith in his return. In the love duet she is all shyness until gradually her voice is flooded with warmth and passion, as she succumbs to Pinkerton’s ardour. Here, maybe, I should add a word about Gedda’s Pinkerton, which some have found too uncaddish. But surely that is to miss the point. That nice people can, and do, perpetrate unkind things is surely the crux of the plot. Gedda sounds like his music; a nice, charming young man, who gives no thought to the consequences of his actions. His remorse in the last act is entirely believable, though it also exposes his weakness.

But back to Callas, who finds in Butterfly “not the frailty of childhood, but its strength”. According to John Steane in the Gramophone review quoted above,

The keynote is firmness of mind; a simple factuality which sees right and wrong with the clarity of that miraculously rinsed and lightened voice.

She sings Un bel di not as some big soprano show piece, but integrates it into the drama, a simple reiteration of Butterfly’s faith, the details of Pinkerton’s return sung in wistful fashion as something she has gone over and over again in her mind. Che tua madre, with its cries of Morta! Morta!, is almost unbearably intense, Sotto il gran ponte dal cielo unbearably moving. Only in the final scene, when left alone, does she let her full voice out, and the effect is overwhelming, Puccini’s final chords shatteringly played by the orchestra under Karajan, who conducts a tautly dramatic performance of the opera, less inclined to wallow than in his later recording.

Danieli is excellent as Suzuki, Borriello a sympathetic Sharpless, but this, of all Puccini operas, is all about the heroine; even Pinkerton is a supporting role, and Callas, with Karajan’s help, makes sure that all our attention is concentrated on Butterfly.

The sound is a trifle boxy but sounds a lot better here than it did in the 1997 Callas Edition. Still it mystifies me that it is not up to the quality of the Tosca that was recorded two years earlier.

No the real problem with this recording is that it brings us face to face with real life in all its raw pain and tragedy. Listening to it is a deeply unsettling experience, and one I can’t subject myself to too often.

Essential nevertheless, for Callas, for Karajan, and for all those who think Puccini’s opera is more than a sentimental pot boiler.