About this Recording
8.111026-27 - PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly (Callas, Gedda, Karajan) (1955)

Giacomo Puccini (1858 -1924)
Madama Butterfly

When EMI [Columbia/Angel] recorded Callas as Madama Butterfly in August 1955, she had not yet sung it in the theatre, nor would she ever do so at La Scala, Milan, where it was made and her career based. In November that year, three months after it was completed it was first published in the United States, when she ventured three performances; the only time she ever would, at the end of her second and last season with the Chicago Lyric Opera; the last time she would sing in opera there. The most [in]famous photograph of her ever taken was backstage immediately after that last performance when she is still clad as Butterfly. A startled looking process-server is hastening away having just satisfied legal requirements and thrust a writ into her kimono; she is shrieking after him, her mouth contorted in a hyena-like snarl. In a trice, the world’s press translated her from the arts section into a frontpage personality.

Contrary to legend Callas was not a famous Puccini singer. In her Athens days she appeared as Suor Angelica and Tosca. Later, during her first years in Italy, she sang Tosca in a number of provincial theatres, and abroad at Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, but there are few reviews of her performances and those that there are, at least by the standards she was accustomed to even then, are not very revelatory or enthusiastic. She appeared in it at the Met in two seasons, 1956/7 and 1957/8, but only because its repertory was narrow and there was little else; she was for ever complaining about it. Not until the end of her stage career was she able to make an effect as Tosca, by which time her histrionic skill, adeptly supported by Zeffirelli, notwithstanding fast failing vocal powers, had matured. Turandot she sang at the beginning of her international career in Italy and 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 Mimì [1956] and Manon Lescaut [1957], but neither would she undertake on stage.

The star of the set is Karajan. Recorded less than fifty years after the première of the opera, it enables us to admire how eloquent the beautifully idiomatic performance of La Scala’s orchestra and chorus could be in a verismo opera and under the sway of a frontranking conductor then at the height of his powers. Unfortunately the singers are not so successful. The Swedish/Russian lyric tenor, Nicolai Gedda, although still young, he was only thirty, is a refined musician of considerable linguistic skill and has an easy, wellblended head register; what he lacks, however, is the one thing essential that Pinkerton calls for, a sensual Italianate vocal quality to match the melodies: in the duet O quanti occhi fissi and aria Addio fiorito asil.

When Callas undertook Butterfly in Chicago, critics were unconvinced. Roger Dettmer, in the ‘Chicago American’, who describes himself as ‘Callas-crazy for more than a year’, having been at all her performances during the two seasons, Norma, Violetta, Lucia, Elvira in I Puritani and Leonora in Il trovatore, expresses his disappointment. ‘[It] is scaled for an intimate house … [s]uch a setting would require a measure less of coyness of expression and deportment in the first act, but it would reward all present with the subtle Callas conception, and one that may yet find maturity.’ Cassidy, in the ‘Chicago Tribune’, no less a Callas acolyte, was also disappointed: ‘[the] full-throated, soaring ardour was seldom heard … Not even its love duet was the flood of melody to send the pulses pounding … This was charming make-believe, but it was not Cio-Cio-San, nor was it the ultimate Callas.’ She went again, as if she were anxious to give her another try, by this time she is unequivocal. ‘If it were anyone else, I would say the music does not lie in her throat’.

Records of her Butterfly confirm the Chicago critics. In Act I, instead of just singing she seems to speak the music, as she fancies, à la japonaise; but she should have remembered this music is occidental, not oriental. It is not in the pages of quasi-recitative that the music is memorably encapsulated but in the famous lyric passages: the Entrance, the Love Duet, Un bel dì and the Flower Duet. True, as is typical with all her recordings, there are many impeccable details. For example, the faultless way she attacks the unaccompanied G flat at the beginning of Un bel dì; it recalls Eduard Hanslick, the famous Vienna critic in 1877, and Adelina Patti [1843-1919] with her unerringly precise sense of pitch when she encored the Jewel Song. ‘Without giving any signal to the orchestra, she attacked the trill on the B natural. The orchestra entered in the next measures, and all was precisely in tune.’ In the death scene, Con onor muore, which I heard Callas sing in concert in 1963 when her career was pretty well over, she was still able to create a memorable effect shaping the phrases and colouring her tone. As she admits to Lord Harewood, after venturing another verismo rôle in only one season, Maddalena in Andrea Chénier: ‘I know I vary … but I am always trying to do something and only sometimes will it be successful.’

Nicolai Gedda [b.1925] is one of the greatest lyric tenors of the twentieth century and unquestionably the most versatile. Born in Stockholm, his father was a Russian who sang in the Don Cossack Choir; after a brief interval in Leipzig, where the family went when his father was appointed cantor with the Orthodox Church, they returned to Stockholm in 1934. There it was that young Nicolai discovered his voice and began his studies with a distinguished teacher, Carl Martin Ohmann. He made his début in 1951 in the altitudinous tenor rôle of Chapdelou in Adam’s Le Postillon de Longjumeau. His career over fifty years took him to pretty well all the leading opera houses throughout Europe and America, and he sang a vast repertory in pretty well every language, in operas like Oberon, Don Giovanni, Boris Godunov, La sonnambula, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, I vespri siciliani, L’elisir d’amore, Der Barbier von Bagdad, Mireille, La traviata, I Puritani, Faust, among many others. Equally renowned as a concert singer, he appeared in recital with piano and in liturgical works with orchestra. His recording career was no less exceptional; one of the busiest undertaken by any singer, it also included operetta and other music he did not venture in public. Even in the 21st century, at Covent Garden, he was still singing and in for him a new rôle, the Archbishop in Pfitzner’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 was there at the Comunale that she made her first stage appearance as Clotilda in Norma on 30th November, 1948, in company with Callas, who was then undertaking her most famous rôle the first time. In 1952 Danieli sang Cieca in La Gioconda making her début at La Scala, also in company with Callas; and this occasion would prove the last time Callas sang Gioconda. Danieli was a typical Italian mezzo-soprano of her day; although there were others with voices more characteristic, and more revealing musical executants. Still, as Azucena in Il trovatore, in which I saw her at Genoa in 1966, there may have been no trills in ‘Stride la vampa’, but in the fashion of verismo, she packed a punch 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 boy where he studied voice and made his début at the Rome Opera in 1942, during World War II, as Silvio in Pagliacci. He took part in a number of seasons during the next quarter of a century: at the Comunale Florence, La Scala Milan and the San Carlo Naples. It was not, the evidence of this recording suggests, a particularly large instrument, nor did it possess an especially individual quality, but a rôle like Sharpless does not need it. His career continued until his mid50s.

Herbert von Karajan [1908-1989] was undoubtedly the most famous conductor in Europe since Toscanini. A native of Salzburg, after graduating from the Academy in Vienna he made his opera début at Ulm in 1929 conducting Le nozze di Figaro. In 1934 he joined the Nazi Party and moved to Aachen. After another three years he arrived at the Vienna Staatsoper and then at the Berlin Staatsoper, conducting Fidelio, Tristan and Die Meistersinger. The swift progress of ‘Das Wunder Karajan’, as he was described by a critic, was interrupted only by the end of the war and denazification, but his fallow period did not last long. In 1946 his career took off again when Walter Legge, EMI’s record producer, had him make his first LPs with the Philharmonia Orchestra. After 1948 he started to appear regularly at La Scala, Milan; after 1953, and the death of Furtwängler, he became chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; after 1956, artistic director of the Salzburg Festival; and after 1957, director at the Vienna Staatsoper. But to continue his story beyond the time he made this recording, notwithstanding his increasing eminence through the remaining thirty years of his career, as recordings suggest, show his art subject to the laws of marginal diminishing returns.

Michael Scott
is the author of Maria Meneghini Callas

Close the window