But within moments of Puccini’s music for *Madama Butterfly* starting, as that frantic first theme gets cut short by a sort of stumbling phrase, the real star of this set becomes apparent — conductor Antonio Pappano. The strings dart and glitter like a flight of brilliantly colored birds, and then the cellos and basses tramp through like thunderclouds. Elsewhere a wind detail flutters by, or the tempo slows precipitously, only to race forward again a moment later. Pappano drives this score like one of the race cars the composer favored, only with the technology and engineering of the 21st century. The ride exhilarates, leaving at the end the nagging question — is this about the story of Cio-Cio-San or about the conductor’s skill?
Not that Gheorghiu doesn’t shine as a star should in the title role. The natural beauty of her voice contains a muted sob, a shadow of pathos appropriate to much of the role. She can also darken the tone for the sudden depths of anger and despair found in the second act. She doesn’t try to sound 15, letting the music and the drama provide the broader aspects of the characterization. And in the recording studio, at least, she has the power for Butterfly’s final moments of tragic grandeur.
The rest of the cast may prompt either controversy or, sadly, indifference. Fabio Capitanucci’s Sharpless doesn’t quite become the conduit for the audience’s perceptions that the role does in its greatest interpreters. The voice is handsome enough. Unfortunately, the tenor here has a darker hue to his instrument, and at times, a similarity in tonal quality between the two singers arises. Jonas Kaufmann is a rising star, and he certainly comes across here as an intelligent singer with a masculine sound. He simply never convinces as Pinkerton. The top doesn’t have the easy swagger it needs, and when he lightens the voice in the love duet, he loses his manly appeal. Put it this way — he doesn’t sound American, and he doesn’t sound Italian. He sings well, but he doesn’t sing Pinkerton. Enkeledja Shkosa does well as Suzuki.
EMI provides the usual thick booklet, although it only consists of the expected essay, adequately penned by Stephen Jay-Taylor (if one forgives opening with a reference to the lame TV comedy Friends). The usual synopsis precedes the four-language libretto. A few nice photos would be even better if followed by biographical notes on the performers, or even their comments on their roles and the opera. Some bonus features are available through a program called OpenDisc on disc one, but your reviewer declined to fill in the survey information required for access.
The market for these expensive studio recordings has all but disappeared. As fine as the components for this *Madama Butterfly* set are, it seems unlikely to remind people of the long-lost days when such sets prompted excitement. For those who love Puccini’s great score, however, Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia deliver enough of interest to warrant a recommendation. Your reviewer will return again to the De Los Angeles, Di Stefano, and Gobbi recording, conducted by Gavazzeni, when ready to revisit Puccini’s masterpiece.
image_description=EMI Classics CD 2 64187 2
product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
product_by=Raymond Aceto, Fabio Capitanucci, Jonas Kaufmann, Angela Gheorghiu, Enkelejda Shkosa, Gregory Bonfatti. Santa Cecilia Academy Rome Orchestra, Santa Cecilia Academy Rome Chorus. Antonio Pappano, conducting.
product_id=EMI 2 64187 2 [3CDs]