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Giacomo Puccini

Sena Jurinac in Madame Butterfly

1959. Royal Opera House, London
A recording from 1959 of a performance of 'Madam Butterfly' starring Sena Jurinacs from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Composer Giacomo Puccini
Conductor Bryan Balkwill
Singers Charles Craig, Sena Jurinac
Ensemble Covent Garden Opera
Genre Opera

An education in Puccini: Butterfly at the Garden

My earliest experience of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was Covent Garden’s revival of 1957, when Victoria de los Angeles sang the title role under the musical direction of Rudolf Kempe. One of the five performances was broadcast on the BBC’s Home Service, and a tape was re-mastered by Paul Baily and published by the Royal Opera House CD Heritage Series in 2007. The performances were much praised, for De los Angeles at thirty-three was at the height of her powers in this role and Kempe provided a fresh reading of the score, restoring Puccini’s intended structure with the second scene of Part Two following directly on after the Humming Chorus instead of the then prevalent custom of being separated by a second interval. The opera’s impact on me as a child innocent of life’s miseries was overwhelming. A preparatory reading of the synopsis had not prepared me for the force of Pinkerton’s betrayal, so I understood it for the first time live in the fifth row of the orchestra stalls.

Less than two years later, a little older and wiser, I returned to Butterfly at Covent Garden, when Sena Jurinac assumed the role. She had been the first great singer I had heard live in the theatre, when attending my inaugural opera, Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne in 1956. That Donna Anna, a part she sang far less often than Donna Elvira, is tantalisingly preserved only as far as ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ on a tape in the Music Preserved collection, but it is enough to prove how completely she outclassed her colleagues in that production. Her performance set a standard which has haunted me ever since.

During the 1950s, Jurinac was associated in Britain primarily with the operas of Mozart and Strauss. She was the incomparable Ilia in Idomeneo that Fritz Busch introduced to Glyndebourne in 1951, the English professional premiere of Mozart’s great opera seria. Her interpretation may be heard complete in the HMV recording conducted by John Pritchard, but she is even finer in the excerpts made with Fritz Busch in 1951 shortly before his untimely death. It is impossible to imagine singing of a more limpid beauty, even in a cast which included Birgit Nilsson as Electra, Léopold Simoneau as Idamante and Richard Lewis as Idomeneo. Grete Busch, the conductor’s widow, later recalled: ‘In Sena Jurinac, one was witnessing a natural talent such as God bestows but rarely. In addition, he had lavished on her youthful freshness and beauty, and an instinctive acting ability born of artless naivety. He gave Glyndebourne its brightest star, affording endless pleasure to the most critical of disillusioned, implacable conductors.’ Her other Mozart roles were Cherubino and, later, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro and both Dorabella (the role of her debut at Covent Garden in 1947) and Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, as well as both Elvira and Anna in Don Giovanni; but she was perhaps even more closely identified with the Strauss travesti parts of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, interpretations which came to be regarded as definitive during the 1950s. She managed to combine a purity of line and silvery tone with the warmth of southern sunshine. She was born in Bosnia and grew up in Croatian Zagreb in what was then the state of Yugoslavia, or the southern Slav lands.

Jurinac moved to war-ravaged Vienna in 1944 and it became her home. She was a member of the State Opera during its golden post-war age, and, during the period of Herbert von Karajan’s direction from 1956, she began to expand her reach beyond the German repertoire and into the Italian. Her first Butterfly came in 1957 under the musical direction of Dmitri Mitropoulos. The Viennese music critic Karl Löbl wrote: ‘I do not think there has been an equally moving Butterfly on the operatic stage since the unforgettable Maria Cebotari’. Karajan then asked her to take on Desdemona and, the next year, Elisabeth in Don Carlos under his own direction. Lord Harewood, then working at Covent Garden, heard some of these performances and invited her to repeat her Butterfly in the January 1959 revival preserved here.

The critical reception in London at the time was muted, probably because of the shadow of De los Angeles’s iconic performance. Opera magazine featured Jurinac’s Butterfly on the cover of its March 1959 issue, but its editor Harold Rosenthal wrote inside that ‘by following Victoria de los Angeles in the role, she set herself a very difficult task. Whether she fully stood up to this challenge depends very much on what the individual listener expects of a Cio-Cio-San’. While making his own preference clear, he went on: ‘Jurinac failed to move me, precisely because her Butterfly is conceived in almost too grand a format…she appears to lack the natural simplicity that Cio-Cio-San demands. In addition, certain aspects of her interpretation seemed contrived and to lack spontaneity. Yet there were wonderful moments – the ‘Un bel di’, the letter duet, and the great emotional outbursts that precede the Flower Duet and the death scene were both magnificent. Then too a little phrase would suddenly be uttered with such poignancy that, as with Callas, it took on a fresh meaning.’ He concluded: ‘Her voice has always been one of the few really beautiful vocal instruments to be heard today: rather cooler than it used to be perhaps, but exquisitely managed, and the complete servant of its user.’

What are undeniable are the differences between the 1957 and 1959 performances, which therefore afford a fascinating comparison. Act 1 is a mere two minutes longer in the latter performance conducted by Bryan Balkwill; but he adds a full eight minutes to the timing of Act 2, with virtually every section allowed a bit more space and rubato than under the relatively swift Kempe. Balkwill became something of a fixture in this opera in London, conducting it during the same season at Sadler’s Wells and returning to Covent Garden for subsequent revivals, including notable performances with Renata Scotto in 1963, which were even more expansive. The 1959 revival also benefited from the first Covent Garden Pinkerton of Charles Craig, more robust and Italianate than the lighter-voiced John Lanigan in 1957. Jess Walters is a more ‘classical’ richer-sounding Sharpless than the characterful Geraint Evans in 1957, and the young Josephine Veasey makes an auspicious debut as Suzuki, blending gloriously with Jurinac in the Flower Duet.

Recollecting the two sets of performances many years later, Lord Harewood was unequivocal in his preference for those with Jurinac, whom he judged the most complete and affecting Butterfly in his long experience. Roger Beardsley, who remastered these tapes, likewise came to prefer Jurinac’s interpretation for its humanity and tragic dimension. My own allegiance to the unique natural innocence of De los Angeles may partly be explained by the power of first impression, but listening now to this recording more than 50 years after it was made brings a fresh perspective. Instinct tells me that Kempe was right to keep it moving in a score which can threaten to tip over into sentimentality. Yet, experience has taught me that a big theatre often demands broader tempi if detail is not to be lost. And detail is what Jurinac provides. You cannot imagine her saying, as did De los Angeles, ‘I never had to think about technique when singing it. I never thought ‘Now this note is coming’ or ‘Now I have to do so-and-so.’ I could just give myself totally to the role’. Rather, you sense that Jurinac has lost some of the artless naturalness that so charmed her early listeners. Paradoxically, she has become more studied but also more emotionally involving. For example, note how she manages, within the broad sweep of the aria beginning Un bel di to inflect the little questions ‘Chi sarà, chi sarà? E come sarà giunto? Che dirà, che dirà?’ with short vowels and a kind of quizzical playfulness; or, after her final outpouring of love for her son, the choked ‘Va, gioca, gioca!’ Then you appreciate how every little detail contributes to the cumulative arc which describes Butterfly’s journey in Part 2.

Covent Garden’s production of Madama Butterfly had been directed by Robert Helpmann with simple but beautifully evocative designs by Sophie Fedorovitch. When I launched my first season as Director of the Royal Opera in 1993, I chose to do so with the final outing of that production. Alas, the singing was no longer of the former quality, a reminder of what had been lost in realising these operas today, but also of what has been gained by preserving these historical live recordings. Perhaps surprisingly, the only more modern singer to stand comparison with my early experiences of the piece with De los Angeles, Jurinac and Scotto has been the Polish soprano Magdalena Falewicz in the long-lasting production by Joachim Herz of the original version. It takes artists of this calibre to administer the cathartic shock that first hit me all those years ago at Covent Garden. This finely preserved performance with Sena Jurinac certainly delivers on that count.

Covent Garden’s production of Madama Butterfly had been directed by Robert Helpmann with simple but beautifully evocative designs by Sophie Fedorovitch. When I launched my first season as Director of the Royal Opera in 1993, I chose to do so with the final outing of that production. Alas, the singing was no longer of the former quality, a reminder of what had been lost in realising these operas today, but also of what has been gained by preserving these historical live recordings. Perhaps surprisingly, the only more modern singer to stand comparison with my early experiences of the piece with De los Angeles, Jurinac and Scotto has been the Polish soprano Magdalena Falewicz in the long-lasting production by Joachim Herz of the original version. It takes artists of this calibre to administer the cathartic shock that first hit me all those years ago at Covent Garden. This finely preserved performance with Sena Jurinac certainly delivers on that count.

© Nicholas Payne, 2013

Pinkerton, an American naval officer stationed in Japan, has arranged a marriage to a Japanese geisha girl, Cio-Cio-San, known as Butterfly. He goes through a wedding ceremony with her, in spite of warnings by Sharpless, the American Consul. Pinkerton returns to America, leaving the faithful Butterfly, who, unknown to him, bears his son. She cannot believe Pinkerton has abandoned her. Three years later he comes back, with a new American wife. When Butterfly learns the truth she kills herself.

Act One

A hillside overlooking the town and harbour of Nagasaki.

Lieutenant Pinkerton has negotiated with Goro, a marriage broker, to marry Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly). The wedding is about to take place and Pinkerton is inspecting the house that is included in the marriage contract. Goro introduces Pinkerton to the servants, who include Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid. Goro is describing to Pinkerton the form his wedding will take when Sharpless, the American Consul, arrives. He and Pinkerton drink a toast to America (‘Dovunque al mondo… America for ever’). Sharpless asks Pinkerton if he is not infatuated with Butterfly; Pinkerton is unsure (‘Amore o grillo’), but he wants to possess her even though he knows this may hurt her. Sharpless fears for Butterfly’s future and tries to dissuade Pinkerton from marrying her. Pinkerton’s reply is to toast the ‘real’ American wife he will have one day.

Goro returns to announce the approach of Butterfly and her friends (‘Quanto cielo! Quanto mar!’). Sharpless asks Butterfly about her family. She says they fell on hard times and the women had to become geishas to support themselves; her mother is coming to the wedding but her father is dead. Officials and relations arrive. Butterfly shows Pinkerton her possessions except for the most sacred one.

Goro tells Pinkerton what this is: a dagger given by the Mikado to Butterfly’s father – an order to commit suicide, which he obeyed. Butterfly tells Pinkerton that for his sake she has become a Christian, but she has not told her family.

The couple are married in a brief ceremony. The ensuing celebrations are interrupted by the Bonze, one of Butterfly’s uncles, who berates Butterfly because he has discovered she has turned her back on her religion. Her family join his curses and Pinkerton angrily orders everyone to leave.

Alone with Butterfly, Pinkerton tries to comfort his bride and, as night falls, he leads her into the house (‘Viene la sera’).

Act Two

Three years later.

Pinkerton has been recalled to America. Butterfly and the faithful Suzuki are still living in the house. They have little money but Butterfly refuses to believe that Pinkerton has deserted her and tells Suzuki how he will return to her one fine day (‘Un bel dí’). Sharpless arrives with Goro to say that he has had a letter from Pinkerton. So great is Butterfly’s excitement that he gets no opportunity to tell her the rest of Pinkerton’s message. She tells Sharpless of Goro’s attempts to marry her off to another suitor, and Sharpless watches while she fends off the latest of them, the wealthy Yamadori. Goro tells the men that Pinkerton’s ship is on the point of arriving, and Yamadori leaves. Sharpless attempts to read the rest of Pinkerton’s letter to Butterfly and tries to persuade her to accept Yamadori. Her answer is to bring in her child – Pinkerton’s child – of whose existence neither Sharpless nor Pinkerton had any knowledge. If Pinkerton deserted her, Butterfly would have two options – to become a beggar, or to die (‘Che tua madre’). Sharpless, overcome with emotion, goes, promising to tell Pinkerton about his child. Suzuki drags in Goro, who has been spreading rumours in Nagasaki that Butterfly has a fatherless child. Butterfly’s anger with him evaporates. The harbour cannon is heard signalling the arrival of a ship. Butterfly recognizes it as Pinkerton’s. She decorates the house to celebrate his arrival and tells Suzuki to fill the room with flowers (‘Scuoti quella fronda’). Then she puts on her wedding dress to wait for her husband.

Dawn the following day

Suzuki persuades Butterfly to sleep after her fruitless all-night vigil. Sharpless arrives at the house with Pinkerton and his American wife Kate. Suzuki tells Pinkerton of Butterfly’s fidelity and her happiness at his return. But Sharpless explains that he needs Suzuki to help them break the news to Butterfly that Pinkerton is married; together they must secure the child’s future (‘Io so che alle sua pene’). Pinkerton gives Sharpless money for Butterfly and, unable to face her, leaves in distress (‘Addio, fiorito asil’). It is left to Suzuki to tell Butterfly the truth.

Kate Pinkerton asks whether she may take the child away so that he can be properly cared for. Butterfly, maintaining her dignity, replies that if Pinkerton returns to the house in half an hour she will give him the boy. When the visitors have left, she dismisses Suzuki and prepares herself for a ceremonial suicide. Suzuki pushes the child into the room, and Butterfly bids him goodbye (‘Tu? piccolo Iddio!’); she then kills herself. Pinkerton is heard calling her name.

© Alison Latham

Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 19 January 1959

Original recording from The Harewood Collection

  • Charles Craig
    Pinkerton
  • David Tree
    Goro
  • Josephine Veasey
    Suzuki
  • Jess Walters
    Sharpless
  • Sena Jurinac
    Cio-Cio-San
  • Ronald Firmager
    Imperial Commissioner
  • Keith Raggett
    Official Registrar
  • Joseph Rouleau
    The Bonze
  • David Allen
    Prince Yamadori
  • Margreta Elkins
    Kate Pinkerton
  • Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus
  • Bryan Balkwill
    Conductor

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