Madama Butterfly – A Japanese tragedy in two acts to a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica after John Luther Long and David Belasco [sung in Italian]
Cio-Cio-San [Madama Butterfly] – Victoria de los Angeles
B. F. Pinkerton – John Lanigan
Suzuki – Barbara Howitt
Sharpless – Geraint Evans
Goro – David Tree
The Bonze – Michael Langdon
Kate Pinkerton – Joyce Livingstone
Prince Yamadori – David Allen
The Imperial Commissioner – Ronald Firmager
The Official Registrar – Harry Gawler
The Covent Garden Opera Chorus
The Covent Garden Orchestra
Robert Helpmann – Producer
Recorded on 2 May 1957 at the Royal Opera House, London
CD No: ROYAL OPERA HOUSE HERITAGE SERIES ROHS006 (2 CDs) Duration: 2 hours 2 minutes Reviewed: July 2007
Royal Opera House Heritage Series – Madama Butterfly
Reviewed by Alexander Campbell
The best live recordings of operas, with all their blots and blemishes, always have that certain spark of spontaneity and atmosphere generated by the presence of an audience and can enshrine more committed performances by treasured artists, in many ways preferable to those taped in the more sterile surroundings of a studio. That is certainly true of this performance. Here Victoria de los Angeles is caught at her appreciable best in one of her signature roles in a performance dating from 1957, thus at a point midway between her two studio recordings of 1954 and 1959.
One can instantly appreciate why her performances as Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly) were considered by many at the time to be something out of the ordinary. It would be unusual to find an interpretation like this nowadays. She manages to chart the development of the character remarkably vividly from the timid 15-year-old girl to the tragic suicide of the ‘mature’ 18-year-old.
Many sopranos manage similar lightness of touch in the earlier scenes but few manage to remind us that the Butterfly encountered in the second half of the piece is still a girl. De Los Angeles manages to keep the lightness and clarity of tone of a young woman throughout, even through the exertions of ‘Un bel di vedremo’ and the final scene, yet still bringing the despair and darkness into the vocal palette as needed. The pathos is all there but in no way overdone or over-sentimentalised.
As Alexandra Wilson reports in her interesting booklet note the soprano is reported to have said that this role never posed her any difficulties whatsoever. On this evidence this must be true – where the odd slightly-raw high note is evident it always seems to be there at the service of the drama. The recording is worth buying for this performance alone.
Like many mono tapings, this one, originating from Lord Harewood’s private collection, is particularly favourable to the voices. This also highlights another factor. All the singers of this cast have an individuality of utterance and vocal character that many modern singers seem to lack. This is the more remarkable as the remaining members of the cast were essentially drawn from Covent Garden’s ensemble. The Australian John Lanigan was a long-serving member of the company starting out as the lyric tenor heard here, and ending his career as a deliverer of tenor cameo roles. His is a very clean, rather non-Italianate Pinkerton, and certainly lighter of tone than modern-day interpreters. This emphasises his character’s youth and inexperience and makes the American less brash and more sympathetic than normal. Some of the higher long-breathed phrases are not always distinguished by a flowing sense of line and phrase – but at least they are clean, tasteful and tuneful.
Geraint Evans delivers a detailed Sharpless sung in a rich and characterful baritone. One senses why his was considered a voice of international quality and why his career took off in the way it did. Barbara Howitt’s Suzuki is very interesting for it reveals a style of singing that has vanished. Surprisingly light and clean of tone, she has a vibrato that is almost fluttery, and this emphasises that Suzuki is also a young and innocent woman as well. She blends remarkably well with de los Angeles. According to the booklet note she was also a house stalwart and stood in for another mezzo as Carmen the night after this performance! I cannot imagine this voice in that role, so perhaps it was bigger and wider of tonal range than these CDs reveal.
The minor roles are well enough sung and characterised, but the chorus standards of the day were perhaps not as refined as today. This may have been due to unfamiliarity with the Italian, for this set of performances apparently heralded in the Royal Opera’s then recent policy of performing major repertory works in their original language (although the introductory note in the booklet erroneously states this was the first time an opera was given in its original language – given that the Barbirolli/Eva Turner “Turandot” performances excerpted in Italian on EMI were taken from live performances at this House!).
As mentioned earlier the recorded balance favours the voices, but there is another very good reason for listening to this set, and that is the exhilarating orchestral performance under Rudolf Kempe. Although the sound is a bit boxy one has a sense that the orchestral players were very responsive to the conductor as they give a performance of colour, energy and virtuosity. Kempe’s reading has a pace that is evident from the opening bars and he generally does not luxuriate or indulge Puccini, except curiously at the start of the second act in the passage where Suzuki is praying to her gods, which is unusually slow. The woodwinds really thrill throughout, and the oriental exoticism of the score is vividly sounded: take the speeding of tempo and blazing account of Yamadori’s arrival as an example; it’s very exciting and conjures all the right images of the Japanese Prince without any visual reference. If the lower ends of the orchestral spectrum are a bit recessed and muffled, ones ears accommodate quickly enough. Stage and audience noise is not intrusive, except at the start of the second act where, post-interval, coughing takes a little while to abate.
This is a recording justly included as part of a “Heritage Series”, not least as it reveals styles of singing long since disappeared, shows how the Covent Garden ensemble was developing then, and captures Victoria de los Angeles’s Butterfly more theatrically and truthfully than her studio versions.