Puccini: Madama Butterfly

Moffo/De Fabritis/Lanfranchi (RAI Telecast 1956 - DVD VAI4284)

Release Date: November 2007 4 stars

Anna Moffo in Madama Butterfly - VAI DVDThe point has often been made that Cio-Cio San is one of the most demanding roles in the soprano repertoire; it is very long and calls for beautiful, lyrical singing as well as many strong, dramatic outbursts over a large orchestra - two vocal styles which are juxtaposed in quick succession throughout the opera. Add to this the fact that the soprano should ideally come across to the audience as is 15 years old, beautiful, vulnerable and charming, and the result is a role which is very seldom cast to give satisfaction on all counts.

However, the compromises one has to make to enjoy the interpretation of Anna Moffo are very slight indeed. Here we have a young woman at the start of her career with a voice of ravishing beauty and looks to match. Her singing is extremely fine and the vocal requirements of the role hold no worries for her, allowing her to concentrate on some mesmerising phrasing and touching acting. Some may find her vocally too light for the role, and it is true that her climactic top Bs and Cs do not pack the punch of other twentieth century sopranos more closely associated with the role. But it is a refreshing change to have the emphasis on the lyrico rather than the spinto, and I find it far more affecting to hear a lighter voice at full tilt, singing at (never beyond) its limits, rather than a voice which dominates the orchestra with ease. She is, after all, supposed to sound under emotional stress.

The casting is strong in general on this telecast, with no real weak links. Only the Pinkertons, both Kate and Benjamin Franklin, fall a little short of the high standard set by the others. A less than perfect Kate Pinkerton has next to no bearing on the success of a performance of Butterfly, and I'm not sure the casting of her husband is all that much more crucial, within reason, since he is an unsympathetic character to start with. All his talk of a nine hundred and ninety-nine year lease on a Japanese wife with the option to cancel every month, no matter how ravishingly sung, sets the audience against him from the outset. Renato Cioni is serviceable in the role, but his singing lacks ease and, consequently, grace. I would not like to second guess the thinking behind casting him in this telecast, but he is considerably better looking than your average Italian tenor, and at around 27 years old when it was filmed, a good match for Moffo, who, incredibly, was only just into her twenties

The conducting of Oliviero De Fabritis is excellent - unobtrusive but disciplined. Moffo is in safe hands; he affords her plenty of room to manoeuvre, yet does not dwell unduly on the high, loud climaxes. The drama is directed by Mario Lanfranchi, who has created a traditional setting with all the sliding doors, cherry blossom and geisha-like gestures which are ubiquitous in productions of this piece in the opera house. There is great attention to detail, though, so that everything seems coherent and atmospheric, rather than hackneyed and clichéd. On the whole, the acting is tolerable but Moffo, Miti Truccato Pace as Suzuki, and Afro Poli as Sharpless are particularly good. Butterfly's internal conflict over her anxiety to pass herself off as an American wife but never abandon her Nagasaki heritage is explored with great results. The moment at which she realises what her fate is going to be is clearly discernable on Moffo's face, pointed up with some very thoughtful camera work, far earlier on in the drama than one might expect. Other similar touches make this a thought-provoking presentation of a familiar work. The only slightly frustrating anomaly is that no solution was arrived at to accommodate the appearance of a ship when it is announced, in spite of the fact that there is a very clear view of the port from Butterfly's house.

The picture and sound on this DVD are clear enough, and will pass muster without comment among habitual collectors of opera recordings from this era. Those with less tolerance for these things may find it wanting, however; there is a slight lack of clarity in the picture and the sound is, of course, mono, with the singers just a little too far forward so that the orchestra takes something of a back seat at climaxes when it should be threatening to engulf the listener. The English subtitles are excellent, although the diction from the whole cast is beyond reproach, so Italian speakers will not need them. The synchronisation of the audio and the visual is not quite perfect, which is occasionally slightly disturbing. But overall, this is a well-presented, strong performance of the opera which has much to recommend it, not least that Moffo provides one of the finest interpretations of the title role available.

By John Woods