A time for Butterflys

By Sebastian Spreng

At the movies, the recent live transmission of Madama Butterfly from the Metropolitan Opera House marked  the beginning of a time for Butterflys. The stunning production by late British film director Anthony Minghella (his first and last in opera) was an event that translates much better on the screen than on the theater stage, with the help of a strong cast headed by a memorable Patricia Racette. The American soprano catches every facet of the geisha, creating a devastating portrait. She was impeccably accompanied by Marcello Giordani, Maria Zifchak – a  particularly moving Suzuki – and Dwayne Croft under Patrick Summers’ confident baton.

On the screen, Minghella’s production has such a powerful visual impact that even the controversial puppet taking the place of Butterfly’s son in the style of the Japanese bunraku made an unforgettable impression, as for once the excessive close-ups that plagued the Met transmissions had a meaningful purpose. Some odd choices – as the pantomime during the prelude to the Third Act – do not interfere with a striking show that would make a delectable (and much needed) DVD. In that realm, the picturesque Fréderic Mitterrand motion picture is on the conventional side while the admirable Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was conceived as a theatrical-film. Robert Wilson’s zen version is an acquired taste and Zeffirelli’s from Verona too grand and out-of-date.  Minghella wisely mixes all angles, having the advantage of a live performance, in this case an exceptional one. 

The longest and most demanding of all Puccini roles ask for a special singer capable of conveying (literally) the metamorphosis of a butterfly. No small task to show the growing of the vulnerable teenager into a dignified, complete woman; going from lyric to dramatic, encompassing a big arc throughout three acts with the pivotal scene of Pinkerton’s letter in the second as a bridge between the girl and the woman. Dramatically  and musically, Butterfly is to Puccini what Violetta is to Verdi or Salome to Richard Strauss (“An Isolde of sixteen”)

Recorded last year, during the 150th anniversary of Puccini birth, this brand new EMI recording is important and should be cause of celebration: it’s the first full opera recorded in studio since the 2004 Tristan und Isolde under Pappano with Plácido Domingo and Nina Stemme (EMI 55800626). At that time it was announced as the last ever EMI complete opera recording, closing in style with the same work  the label started with half a century ago: the legendary Furtwängler Tristan (EMI 56762626).

Apparently the company reversed that policy and the lucky result is this new Butterfly, targeted as a star vehicle for Angela Gheorghiu, a role she probably would never dare to attempt on stage. The result is interesting, however, problematical. On a first impression, she sings extremely well and has all the attributes for an almost ideal Cio-Cio-San, at least in a recording. Only a certain natural darkness in her voice could be a minor objection for the part. But then, her lack of involvement doesn’t let her inhabit the role and she seems to be just skating the surface while applying artificial touches here and there. Her ideas are old-fashioned or mannered, overdoing the geisha girliness. In the end, she is not a finished product. The contrast with the aforementioned Racette doesn’t pay her any favors, where the American comes closer to great Butterflys from the past, the Romanian doesn’t.

Munich-born Jonas Kaufmann steals the show as Pinkerton. He already did it as Don José in a recent Carmen from Covent Garden (DVD DECCA 074 312), he does it again here with a virile, macho characterization of the repentant Yankee vagabondo that is just right for the German tenor in spite of some vocal huskiness.  Expressive and powerful, it doesn’t  matter if he doesn’t have the honeyed style of Carlo Bergonzi (Barbirolli and Serafin), the youthful insolence of Giuseppe Di Stéfano (Gavazzeni) nor the qualities of Bjorling (Santini), Gedda (Karajan) or Domingo (in  the Ponnelle film and the excellent 1978 Scotto second reading with Maazel). Let alone Pavarotti’s superb Pinkerton for Karajan.

If the Suzuki  and Sharpless are very well served by Enkelejda Shkosa and Fabio Capitanucci; undeniably, the star of the recording is Antonio Pappano. A British of Italian descent like Barbirolli, conducting in the great tradition the venerable Orchestra and Chorus della Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Rome) both in superlative form. Rarely, has the Prelude to the Third Act or the celebrated Humming Chorus sounded as gorgeous as here. He conceived a delicate and mighty painting  revealing Puccini’s magisterial orchestration to the fullest. Plenty of  detail, lyricism and dramatic insight, Pappano obtain the miraculous, needed balance and italianitá that Gheorgiu, alas, doesn’t find.  The digital sound is spacious and warm according to EMI’s best standards as is the classic presentation with libretto and essays included. The set does not replace Barbirolli or Karajan but it is a noteworthy addition to the catalog (EMI 50999 2 64187)

 Madama Butterfly has a happy recorded history with plenty of illustrious sopranos, therefore comparisons with this latest arrival are unavoidable. From the earlier verismo style of Toti Dal Monte  and the first two recordings of Renata Tebaldi (Erede, 1951) and Victoria de los Angeles (Gavazzeni, 1954) plus the Americans Anna Moffo, Eleanor Steber  and the opulent Leontyne Price (Leinsdorf, 1962) to the impressive (and both entirely different) two sets conducted by Karajan: the first  almost chamber-like from 1955 with an inimitable and special Maria Callas and the sonically sumptuous second of 1974 with a splendid Mirella Freni, who like Gheorghiu never sang Butterfly onstage.

In a class of its own, the 1966 Sir John Barbirolli account with the incomparable Renata Scotto at her peak, is now deservedly in the pantheon of the Great Recordings of the Century, is truly one indeed (EMI 567888). All these eminent Butterflys -  De los Angeles, Callas, Freni and especially Scotto – gave a heartbreaking study of abandon and loneliness, of the loss of innocence, a depiction of the collision of two cultures, and its tragic result.

Born in Santa Fe, Argentina, Sebastian Spreng is a visual artist and music reviewer for newspapers and classical magazines, who has resided in Miami since 1987. Music is often present in his work and many of his exhibits have been based on musical series, including Liederkreis I & II, Sinfonietta, Impromptus, Chamber Music, and Reverberations. www.sebastianspreng.net.

Posted in CD/DVD


4 Responses to “A time for Butterflys”

  1. Posted Mar 18, 2009 at 3:14 pm by Patrick Hornbacher

    Utterly disaggree. I do not know what you are listening to when it comes to Angela Gheorghiu. She is the best soprano in the world. She proves it again and again. She proved it at the Met Gala and in everything she does. Lack of involvement? Artificial touches, darkness? Claptrap.

  2. Posted Mar 18, 2009 at 4:44 pm by John Ross

    Totally agree. A disappointment. Pappano saved the day.

  3. Posted Mar 18, 2009 at 6:26 pm by Julia d'Arcy

    I have to agree with Mr. Hornbacher, Angela Gheorghiu leaves them behind. Why do you think Pappano has worked with her on 7 discs? The sound mixer buries the voices too much unfortunately, but AG has it where none of her contemporaries do.

  4. Posted Mar 20, 2009 at 7:48 am by Susan Kelley

    Sebastian Spring’s definitive review of Madame Butterfly brought to mind the innovative and beautiful details of this outstanding, fresh production. It brought back the emotions of moment of attending the screening. What a treat!

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Wed Mar 18, 2009
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