INKPOT#53 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: PUCCINI Madama Butterfly. Callas/Scala di Milano/Karajan (EMI)
GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858-1924)
MADAMA BUTTERFLY Maria Callas soprano
Lucia Danieli mezzo-soprano
Nicolai Gedda tenor
Mario Borriello bass
Chorus & Orchestra of the Teatroalla Scala di Milano
conducted by Herbert von Karajan
EMI Classics CDS5 56298-2
2 discs [128’37”] full-price
Includes full libretto in Italian and English. Recorded in 1955. MONO Recording.
by Ng Yeuk Fan
At its premiere, Puccini had expected Madama Butterfly to be a success. Unfortunately for him, that day (February 17, 1904), Puccini’s enemies had filled the La Scala audience with their own kind, who proceeded to deliberately boo and jeer at the music. Some say that the original version had its problems anyway, musically speaking. Puccini withdrew the opera, even returned the fee to the theatre, revised the work and re-premiered it two months later to great acclaim. Sometimes, enemies force you to become better.
Despite the many disagreeable stacked chords ringing through brassy bells, the artistry of Puccini is evident if you note his ability to create drama with simple musical tools. One only needs to hear CD1 track 2, at 0’19” on “amorosa” to be convinced of that. On the word “amorosa“, which means “amorous”, Puccini alters the nuance of the musical line to inflect the meaning of the word. The subtle pizzicato bass ushers in the tender change of mood, as it were, as the word is sung.
Further, the particularly successful “Humming Chorus” (CD2 track 10), which accompanies Cio Cio Sans all-night vigil in Act II creates a certain expectant tension. By cleverly using no words, since none may be appropriate, this music is immediately calming yet in its subtle way, foreboding, hinting of Cio Cio Sans imminent misery. As we wait in our seats in anticipation for Pinkerton’s arrival, we are confronted with the knowledge of Butterfly’s innocent passions and that her entire world is built on her only hope – one which we know will be dashed at daybreak.
Thus, the dramatic difference between the cheerful flower scene before and the ironic twist in the story to come becomes heightened manifold. This scene, a challenging one for lighting designers, is representative of the finest dramatic conceptions good opera is famous for. The meditative wait of the “Humming Chorus” – Butterfly for her husband; and us, for dramatic development – binds us to Butterfly inseparably. It primes us for unrestrained sympathy for this tiny heroine.
Gedda makes for a believable Pinkerton, very average at once and absolutely detestable. Puccini intends for a phallocentric Pinkerton which leaves one to wonder whether his idea of the average American is exactly that. Gedda’s portrayal is efficient without being brilliant. His voice is ordinary and at times even poor. This belies the great Gedda voice which he is famous for. Having said that, I would rather have a second-rate Pinkerton than a bright, heroic and righteous tenor voice.
The reading by Karajan is this recording’s greatest merit. Thanks to Walter Legge’s perfectionist habits, the orchestra is heard with remarkable clarity for a mono recording of 1955. Very little needs to be left to the imagination as the shimmering strings sound above the acoustic dirt and the lack of stereo effortlessly.
Puccini’s fascination for oriental themes become evident to the opera fan who is familiar with Turandot. It is known now that the Butterfly theme first introduced at CD1 Track 5, with Cio Cio San’s entrance, is based on one of several authentic Chinese tunes which Puccini (right) obtained from a few early recorded LPs imported from China. These tunes include the “Ho y do mi l d mo l hu” (“What A Beautiful Jasmine Flower” – Mandarin hanyu pinyin tones approximated in some cases. Sorry. – Ed.) a famous Chinese song adapted for use in his other orientalist opera Turandot, and more recently in Tan Dun’s Symphony 1997.
The whole opera ends on a enigmatic incomplete cadence. I wonder why.
In Singapore, this set is available at or can be ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Tower Records (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City), or HMV (The Heeren).
Ng Yeuk Fan is not your typical pot-bellied tenor.
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