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
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: July 2007
CD No: ROYAL OPERA HOUSE HERITAGE SERIES
ROHS006 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 2 minutes
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.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.