Puccini: Madama Butterfly
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Giacomo Puccini (1858 -1924)
When EMI [Columbia/Angel] recorded Callas asMadama Butterfly in August 1955, she had not yet sungit in the theatre, nor would she ever do so at La Scala,Milan, where it was made and her career based. InNovember that year, three months after it wascompleted it was first published in the United States,when she ventured three performances; the only timeshe ever would, at the end of her second and last seasonwith the Chicago Lyric Opera; the last time she wouldsing in opera there. The most [in]famous photograph ofher ever taken was backstage immediately after that lastperformance when she is still clad as Butterfly. Astartled looking process-server is hastening awayhaving just satisfied legal requirements and thrust a writinto her kimono; she is shrieking after him, her mouthcontorted in a hyena-like snarl. In a trice, the world'spress translated her from the arts section into a frontpagepersonality.
Contrary to legend Callas was not a famous Puccinisinger. In her Athens days she appeared as SuorAngelica and Tosca. Later, during her first years inItaly, she sang Tosca in a number of provincial theatres,and abroad at Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, but thereare few reviews of her performances and those thatthere are, at least by the standards she was accustomedto even then, are not very revelatory or enthusiastic. Sheappeared in it at the Met in two seasons, 1956/7 and1957/8, but only because its repertory was narrow andthere was little else; she was for ever complaining aboutit. Not until the end of her stage career was she able tomake an effect as Tosca, by which time her histrionicskill, adeptly supported by Zeffirelli, notwithstandingfast failing vocal powers, had matured. Turandot shesang at the beginning of her international career in Italyand South America on 24 occasions in 1948 and 1949,but save for a recording she did not undertake it again:'It's not really very good for the voice', she admitted.
She recorded Mim?â?¼  and Manon Lescaut ,but neither would she undertake on stage.
The star of the set is Karajan. Recorded less thanfifty years after the premi?â?¿re of the opera, it enables usto admire how eloquent the beautifully idiomaticperformance of La Scala's orchestra and chorus couldbe in a verismo opera and under the sway of a frontrankingconductor then at the height of his powers.
Unfortunately the singers are not so successful. TheSwedish/Russian lyric tenor, Nicolai Gedda, althoughstill young, he was only thirty, is a refined musician ofconsiderable linguistic skill and has an easy, wellblendedhead register; what he lacks, however, is theone thing essential that Pinkerton calls for, a sensualItalianate vocal quality to match the melodies: in theduet O quanti occhi fissi and aria Addio fiorito asil.
When Callas undertook Butterfly in Chicago, criticswere unconvinced. Roger Dettmer, in the 'ChicagoAmerican', who describes himself as 'Callas-crazy formore than a year', having been at all her performancesduring the two seasons, Norma, Violetta, Lucia, Elvirain I Puritani and Leonora in Il trovatore, expresses hisdisappointment. '[It] is scaled for an intimate house ...
[s]uch a setting would require a measure less of coynessof expression and deportment in the first act, but itwould reward all present with the subtle Callasconception, and one that may yet find maturity.'Cassidy, in the 'Chicago Tribune', no less a Callasacolyte, was also disappointed: '[the] full-throated,soaring ardour was seldom heard ... Not even its loveduet was the flood of melody to send the pulsespounding ... This was charming make-believe, but itwas not Cio-Cio-San, nor was it the ultimate Callas.'She went again, as if she were anxious to give heranother try, by this time she is unequivocal. 'If it wereanyone else, I would say the music does not lie in herthroat'.
Records of her Butterfly confirm the Chicagocritics. In Act I, instead of just singing she seems tospeak the music, as she fancies, ?â?á la japonaise; but sheshould have remembered this music is occidental, notoriental. It is not in the pages of quasi-recitative that themusic is memorably encapsulated but in the famouslyric passages: the Entrance, the Love Duet, Un bel d?â?¼and the Flower Duet. True, as is typical with all herrecordings, there are many impeccable details. Forexample, the faultless way she attacks theunaccompanied G flat at the beginning of Un bel d?â?¼; itrecalls Eduard Hanslick, the famous Vienna critic in1877, and Adelina Patti [1843-1919] with herunerringly precise sense of pitch when she encored theJewel Song. 'Without giving any signal to the orchestra,she attacked the trill on the B natural. The orchestraentered in the next measures, and all was precisely intune.' In the death scene, Con onor muore, which Iheard Callas sing in concert in 1963 when her careerwas pretty well over, she was still able to create amemorable effect shaping the phrases and colouring hertone. As she admits to Lord Harewood, after venturinganother verismo r?â??le in only one season, Maddalena inAndrea Chenier: 'I know I vary ... but I am alwaystrying to do something and only sometimes will it besuccessful.'Nicolai Gedda [b.1925] is one of the greatest lyrictenors of the twentieth century and unquestionably themost versatile. Born in Stockholm, his father was aRussian who sang in the Don Cossack Choir; after abrief interval in Leipzig, where the family went whenhis father was appointed cantor with the OrthodoxChurch, they returned to Stockholm in 1934. There itwas that young Nicolai discovered his voice and beganhis studies with a distinguished teacher, Carl MartinOhmann. He made his debut in 1951 in the altitudinoustenor r?â??le of Chapdelou in Adam's Le Postillon deLongjumeau. His career over fifty years took him topretty well all the leading opera houses throughoutEurope and America, and he sang a vast repertory inpretty well every language, in operas like Oberon, DonGiovanni, Boris Godunov, La sonnambula, DieEntf?â??hrung aus dem Serail, I vespri siciliani, L'elisird'amore, Der Barbier von Bagdad, Mireille, Latraviata, I Puritani, Faust, among many others. Equallyrenowned as a concert singer, he appeared in recitalwith piano and in liturgical works with orchestra. Hisrecording career was no less exceptional; one of thebusiest undertaken by any singer, it also includedoperetta and other music he did not venture in public.
Even in the 21st century, at Covent Garden, he was stillsinging and in for him a new r?â??le, the Archbishop inPfitzner's Palestrina.
The mezzo soprano Lucia Danieli [1929-2005]was born at Arzignano near Vincenza in the Veneto,and studied at Florence with Arrigo Pedrollo. It wasthere at the Comunale that she made her first stageappearance as Clotilda in Norma on 30th November,1948, in company with Callas, who was thenundertaking her most famous r?â??le the first time. In 1952Danieli sang Cieca in La Gioconda making her debut atLa Scala, also in company with Callas; and thisoccasion would prove the last time Callas sangGioconda. Danieli was a typical Italian mezzo-sopranoof her day; although there were others with voices morecharacteristic, and more revealing musical executants.
Still, as Azucena in Il trovatore, in which I saw her atGenoa in 1966, there may have been no trills in 'Stridela vampa', but in the fashion of verismo, she packed apunch and had no difficulty bringing the house down.
The Italian baritone Mario Borriello [1914-2000]was in fact born in Vienna but travelled to Italy as a boywhere he studied voice and made his debut at the RomeOpera in 1942, during World War II, as Silvio inPagliacci. He took part in a number of seasons duringthe next quarter of a century: at the Comunale Florence,La Scala Milan and the San Carlo Naples. It was not, theevidence of this r