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The mercury is nudging 40C in Rome when a star cast gathers to record Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. It’s a particularly special occasion, not only because studio recordings of operas are all too rare these days (the cost involved means record companies usually record them live in performance) but it’s the first Madama Butterfly to be recorded this way in over 40 years.
And it’s a cast to die for: Puccini expert Antonio Pappano conducting his Academy of Santa Cecilia Orchestra, the rising young German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Pinkerton, and, of course, the incomparable Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu as ‘Butterfly’, Cio-Cio-San. Classic FM has come to Rome especially to interview her during the sessions, and we're a little worried about pinning her down for our promised conversation – she has a fearsome reputation for being late for interviews, or not turning up at all.
But she’s very much here today, and I’ve been invited into the recording sessions to hear her sing. It couldn’t be more dramatic – she’s recording Butterfly’s death scene. When the session ends she sweeps out; I run after her.
Thankfully, she is expecting me, so we make our way to her dressing room. It’s a surreal start. There is a piece of what looks like Madeira cake lying on her coffee table and, on closer inspection, it’s covered in ants. Her personal assistant quickly rushes to clear it away, but there are a few stray workers left wandering aimlessly over the table’s glass surface. Gheorghiu serenely squashes them with a manicured finger as we sit down.
“This is one of the hardest roles I’ve ever sung,” she tells me, “because of the big, huge emotions. It’s relentless, it’s all the time in my throat, stomach, head, heart – the music is so demanding and so passionate. I wonder sometimes why Puccini wrote a role that’s so demanding for a character who is a girl of 15-years-old.”
It’s one of the big questions – Puccini’s heroine Cio-Cio-San is just 15 at the beginning of the opera and 18 when it ends, and yet he furnishes her with the most sustained, dramatic music imaginable, demanding a vocal technique of a mature soprano. What is Gheorghiu’s theory?
“I think perhaps because her love was so powerful and she has a child so early. It made her grow up quickly. But I tell you, to sing it, it costs me. In the second act she is on the stage all the time. I put my soul in it and that costs me.”
And how did she come to record with Antonio Pappano?
“I met him in 1993, I heard his passion and technique and thought, ‘Ah! He will be the conductor for my CDs!’ He has this Italian culture and knowledge about singers. We never argue about musical things – this is very important to me because I need to have a good atmosphere when I record. And something happens when we perform, something magic.”
Gheorghiu is renowned as a Puccini expert, and has performed and recorded many of his roles, yet she has never sung Butterfly on stage. Will this change her mind?
“The role is so powerful, so difficult. But now, having done this recording, perhaps I will take it on stage.”
Later, I manage to catch a few minutes with Antonio Pappano, too. What should a newcomer to this opera look out for?
“Listen out for Butterfly’s entrance. We first hear her from off stage, surrounded by other female voices singing in harmony; it’s a device that was much copied later by Hollywood – it’s like one of those 1940s Betty Grable movies.
“Then there are some obvious oriental touches too – Puccini quotes a Japanese folk tune. And of course the Star Spangled Banner, which is Pinkerton’s theme; it sums up the brash, American sailor.”
And what does he think of Pinkerton, who so callously enters a marriage with Cio-Cio-San, only to desert her and their child to marry a “real” American wife?
“Yes he’s a cad,” says Pappano. “But he’s got some great tunes.”
MADAME BUTTERFLY – THE STORY
Pinkerton, an American sailor stationed in Nagasaki, enters into an arranged marriage with Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), a 15-year-old Japanese geisha. After a few months he leaves her, promising to come back “when the robins nest.” She bears his son and waits patiently for him; after three years he returns but has made a “genuine” marriage to an American woman. They plan to adopt Cio-Cio-San’s child; heartbroken and dishonoured, she kills herself.