PUCCINI Madama Butterfly – Barbirolli
This is Barbirolli's Butterfly; despite Scotto's expressiveness and Bergonzi's elegance it is the conductor's contribution that gives this set its durability and its hold on the affection. The Rome Opera Orchestra are not the equal of the Vienna Philharmonic (for Karajan in his second recording on Decca—6/87) or the Philharmonia (for Maazel on CBS and Sinopoli on DG) or even the orchestra of La Scala, Milan (at least in Karajan's hands, in his earlier recording with Callas on EMI—10/87). But they are an Italian orchestra and they evidently recognized a compatriot and a seasoned fellow Puccinian in the London-born Giovanni Battista Barbirolli: he played in rehearsals at Covent Garden directed by the composer and had made his conducting debut there in this opera. The rapport between conductor and orchestra and their mutual affection for Puccini are evident throughout, and they make this the most Italianate of all the readings listed above. It is hugely enjoyable, not just in the big emotional outpourings (like the Act 2 interlude, where Barbirolli's passionate gasps and groans spur the orchestra to great eloquence) but in many tiny moments where you can almost see the conductor and his players lovingly and absorbedly concentrating on subtleties of phrasing and texture.
There is a lot of good singing, too. Scotto's voice will not always take the pressure she puts on it, but her portrayal is a touching and finely detailed one, at its best in Act 2 where she has the range to respond with broken pathos to Sharpless's suggestion that Pinkerton may not come back and then to turn with real fury on the importunate marriage-broker Goro a few pages later. The ever stylish Bergonzi sings with immaculate phrasing and perfect taste, Panerai is an outstanding Sharpless (beautifully sung, the embodiment of anxious, pitying concern) and di Stasio's Suzuki is attractively light-voiced and young-sounding.
The recording, however, is a bit narrow in perspective, rather close (really quiet singing and playing rarely register as such) and some of the voices are edged or slightly tarnished in loud passages; Scotto's is the most often affected, unfortunately (there is at times a touch of squalliness to her singing anyway). All the sets listed above (with the exception of Maazel, where the voices are also edged by excessively forward placing) have a more agreeable sound, even the 1954 Karajan, which is in mono. In that context one has to say that Scotto, beautifully though she sang for Barbirolli had deepened and refined her interpretation by the time she came to record it with Maazel (she is, even so, not so moving nor so much a mistress of the fine-drawn detail as Freni in her recordings with Karajan and Sinopoli). Although it is good to have Bergonzi's likeable Pinkerton on record he has nowhere near the vocal glamour or the accomplished acting of Karajan's Pavarotti (Decca). And for many, of course, Callas on the earlier Karajan set is simply incomparable (her ''greatest achievement on records'', JBS called it).
Barbirolli's set is perhaps for those who find the meticulously refined detail of the later Karajan studied (ravishing, in my view, and stunningly recorded) and for whom the audacious liberties taken by Sinopoli are intolerable (I find them genuinely creative, rarely obtrusive, occasionally inspired, and his recording too is in the luxury class), those, in short, for whom Latin warmth and impulsive open-heartedness are indispensable in this opera. They will find those qualities here, with singing to match, and will not mind the occasional patch of stridency.'