Puccini Madama Butterfly

A fascinating recording – can it replace the familiar version?

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Puccini Madama Butterfly

  • Madama Butterfly

After its disastrous La Scala première in 1904‚ Madama Butterfly was hastily revised for its triumphant vindication at Brescia only three months later and still further modified for a production in Paris in 1906. The Paris version is the source for the current published score and for most staged performances and recordings‚ but there has been a tendency in recent years to revert to the 1904 original. Three years ago Vox Classics issued a ‘variorum’ recording including the complete 1904 score together with all those passages that were revised or added for Brescia or Paris. That recording had the advantage of demonstrating that even where music from 1904 was retained it was very frequently recast – Vox’s supplementary passages ran for a total of 90 minutes and the set to four CDs.
For most Puccinians already owning a recording of the ‘standard’ version this new Naxos set will provide as much evidence as they need of the complex nature of Puccini’s revisions. It is widely agreed that these were mostly but not invariably improvements. Pinkerton’s ‘Addio‚ fiorito asil’‚ added for Brescia and of course omitted here‚ certainly makes him a more sympathetic character‚ as does the deletion of his contemptuous reactions to Butterfly’s relatives (though some prefer the original as an early portrayal of an ugly American imperialist). For the life of me I can never understand why Puccini allowed the deletion of the ‘old song’ that Butterfly quotes to Suzuki just before ‘Tu‚ tu‚ piccolo iddio’: ‘He entered the closed doors‚ took the place of everything and then departed‚ leaving nothing‚ nothing but death.’ Quite by chance I followed this recording with a score of the Brescia edition‚ and have become convinced that it improves on both the original and 1906 and I hope that it will be recorded some day.
This new recording‚ however‚ has more in its favour than its restoration of 130 bars of ‘lost’ Puccini and a large number of variant first thoughts. Svetlana Katchour’s Butterfly is not convincingly girlish‚ nor does she make touchingly expressive use of words‚ but vocally she is utterly reliable‚ ample­voiced and secure. Bruce Rankin‚ an English tenor who has worked in Germany for some years‚ is a discovery: his voice is fresh‚ easily produced‚ admirably ardent and youthful­sounding. The light­voiced Suzuki is good; so‚ although very slightly fragile‚ is the Sharpless. The main problem is a conductor who is laudably energetic but often too hasty or heavy­handed: the ‘old song’ is rushed off its feet and the chorus is under strain in his inflexible humming chorus. Still‚ it is a good enough performance to make a fascinating supplement to a recording of the standard text; a better performance indeed than the Vox‚ and a lot cheaper. A good recording‚ too‚ with the sound effects (birdsong‚ harbour activity) that the score specifies.

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