Puccini: Madama Butterfly-Original Version

Review by: Robert Levine

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

In 1996 Vox released a 4-CD set that included this, the original La Scala fiasco version of Madama Butterfly, as well as Puccini’s revisions for Brescia and Paris. It was a fascinating release and fans of the opera immediately realized what had been wrong with the first version: The first act contained far too much “local color” in the form of music for Butterfly’s relatives (there’s even a drinking song for her uncle Yakuside), and the 90-minute last act, in addition to simply being too long, dragged out the overnight vigil, too abruptly went into Butterfly’s lullaby to her child, and wasted an extra couple of minutes between Butterfly’s final lines and her suicide–what on earth could she be doing? Puccini later trimmed away a great deal of fat, altered many, many notes and tonalities (it’s a delight, actually, to note the differences), added Pinkerton’s rueful “Addio fiorito asil” as well as Butterfly’s heartbreaking recognition of Kate Pinkerton, and much more. (The ultimate “Ah! Morte!” at the close of Butterfly’s pathetic second-act narrative to Sharpless was an afterthought as well; originally her vision of returning to life as a geisha ends softly and less desperately.)

This is a very well sung performance. Bulgarian soprano Svetlana Katchour is a big lyric (going on spinto) with an attractive sound, her pitch is dead-center, the voice is well and evenly produced, and when her Italian isn’t garbled it’s not bad. Her Butterfly is severely undercharacterized, however: she seems a bit shy in Act 1 and pretty unhappy in Act 2, but she never truly moves us as the greatest Butterflys (such as Dal Monte, Scotto, or Callas) do. Pity–the voice is marvelous. Tenor Bruce Rankin, having to make Pinkerton nothing but a cad (without his final, sympathetic aria), does so very well. His also is a lyric voice, but the sound is appealing, the technique in place, and a lively mind is clearly behind his interpretation. It will be nice to hear more from him.

Fredrika Brillemburg’s Suzuki is right there with Butterfly, sympathetically and with nice tone in the Flower Duet. Baritone Heikki Kilpeläinen sounds very young for Sharpless, but it’s a quality voice. Gunter Neuhold takes six minutes less in the first and 10 minutes less in the second act than Charles Rosekrans on Vox, and the latter hardly lags. I must admit that even though things occasionally do seem rushed on Naxos at 57 and 82 minutes per act, perhaps getting through them somewhat quickly is not such a bad idea. The Bremen Orchestra is very good, the chorus less so. Naxos’ sound is excellent. The Vox performance featured an okay cast–no more. This new Naxos set is the one to own if you want the original, and fans of the opera (particularly at Naxos’ price), will need this. [5/28/2002]



Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Scotto/Bergonzi/Barbirolli (EMI)

GIACOMO PUCCINI - Madama Butterfly (original 1904, La Scala version)


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