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Liebespaar: The Pinkertons – Tebaldi / di Stefano, Pirozzi / Pretti

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

For all its creative team's applications of Japanese cultural elements, Madama Butterfly remains an incontestably Italian opera. The characters, irrespective of nationality, fluently communicate with each other in that high-register theatrical Italian this reviewer dubs «librettese», and the score's demands of vocal energy oblige performers to dispense with the stage pretense of Asian restraint in favor of Mediterranean expansiveness of both vocality and gesture. What more irresistible example than the first act culmination «Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia, ora sei tutta mia» [Child whose eyes are full of bewitchment, now you are entirely mine], and what more felicitous demonstration than two performances recorded seventy-plus years apart, both with an Italian soprano, tenor, and conductor?

San Francisco Opera concert radio broadcast

1950/10/15 War Memorial Opera House

San Francisco Opera Orchestra

c. Gaetano Merola

Butterfly: Renata Tebaldi

Pinkerton: Giuseppe di Stefano

By the time she made her 1958 Barcelona role debut, Renata Tebaldi had long been aurally identified with Cio-Cio-San thanks to such recordings as her 1949 «Un bel dì» and her 1951 first complete Butterfly. A particular place of honor is due to this 1950 concert performance of the love duet with Giuseppe di Stefano, the earliest live document of both singers in their respective roles, supported in firm yet flexible fashion by the SFO Orchestra under the expert battuta of company founder Gaetano Merola.

Through dated yet unblemished radio broadcast sound, both Renatona and Pippo are, already at this early point of their respective careers, unmistakable in timbre and inflection. The career-long artistic attributes which these two artists shared are in ample, fresh-toned evidence: honeyed timbre carried by warm-hearted identification with the music, dictation-clear enunciation at every point of the range, and tonal steadiness never threatened by even the hint of stray vibrations. These two young lovers address each other on a wide expressive scale between sweetness and impetuosity, at maximum vocal responsiveness all the way to the treacherous concluding top C. This coalescence of il porgere tebaldiano and il porgere distefaniano is all the more arresting when one remembers that they were only in their late 20s!

2021/05/31 Teatro La Fenice

Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice

c. Daniele Callegari

Butterfly: Anna Pirozzi

Pinkerton: Piero Pretti

Justly identified with onerous early Verdi (anti)heroines such as Abigaille, Odabella, la Lady, Anna Pirozzi was slated to make her Butterfly role debut this spring at her hometown theatre, the San Carlo di Napoli. Although the production was cancelled, the fruits of Pirozzi's labor can be savored in this recent verismo gala concert from La Fenice.

Availing himself of the concert context, Daniele Callegari guides performers and public through a «scenic route» reading, highlighting the shifts between orchestral colors and unfurling phrases leisurely. Such tempi could prove vocally tiring except that Callegari's pacing remains supple, never stiff, and his protagonists confidently flesh out the contours of their vocal lines.

Piero Pretti conveys Pinkerton's ardor without hectoring, finding romantically inviting inflections right from «Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia» and uttering con tenerezza the crucial «Io t'ho ghermita, ti serro palpitante: sei mia!» [I've seized you, you are quivering and I hold you fast: you are mine!] How admirable a singer is Pretti: admirably steady of vibrato and pitch, admirably distinct of pronunciation, riding Pinkerton's surging phrases at Callegari's tempi all the way up to a secure top C.

Relishing the challenge of Butterfly's rangey vocal line, Anna Pirozzi is an invigorating corrective to the shortcomings of far too many contemporary sopranos. Serenely responsive in her bottom-through-middle registers, where the tone has an appealing mournful tint, her voice opens up thrillingly as she extends into and beyond the passaggio, gaining an intoxicating spin. The duet's taxing final pages, in which Butterfly climbs a two-octave span at «slow-burn» pace, reveal Pirozzi's mastery of breath reflexes: never allowing the work of singing to tense up her throat muscles, not shoving air as the vocal line walks in and out of the top register, taking and releasing air easily even in a split second.

A welcome gravitas informs this interpretation, Pretti as much gentleman as officer and Pirozzi—refusing to stoop to odious Adolescent Geisha Clichés—aurally embodying a woman of character, the daughter of a samurai (as Butterfly is), falling in love. Basta with the fruitless stratagem of aping heedless youngsters high on adrenaline: our Liebespaar is engrossed in colloquy, exchanging serious confidences over a luxurious orchestral ambience of aristocratic sensuality.

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