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.