From Butterfly to Wozzeck

By rights this column ought to be all about Alban Berg, but somehow Giacomo Puccini keeps getting in the way. Berg’s opera Wozzeck has just received its second stereo recording at the hands of Pierre Boulez and the Paris National Opera (CBS 32-21-0002: two records). Life is too short to count the stereo recordings of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, but another has just been issued by Angel (SGL-3702: three records).

Between Butterfly and Wozzeck lies a whole world of differing tastes and opposing musical concepts. Yet they don’t stand all that far apart in time. Wozzeck dates from 1925, Butterfly from 1904. Nevertheless, Puccini’s opera is thoroughly nineteenth-century and Berg’s unmistakably twentieth. Wozzeck is, without a doubt, as vivid and searing a musical portrait of modern man as has yet been written. But Butterfly cuts its way to the human heart too, and the new Angel recording is so magnificent that it is impossible to resist talking about it first.

If the distinguishing qualities of this Butterfly had to be put into two words, they might well be Barbirolli — and birds. Barbirolli is the same Sir John (only he wasn’t knighted then) who for a time succeeded Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic, but who attained genuine success only in later years in his native England. His interest in opera will come as a surprise to most listeners, and the results he achieves in this one are little short of spectacular. Butterfly is not an opera in which the conductor often exercises a decisive influence, yet Barbirolli, working with a cast relatively lacking in high-powered names, makes the score surge with vigor and glow with a lyric incandescence. His tempos are deliberate; he seemingly lets climaxes build themselves rather than whipping them up.

Barbirolli’s feat is all the more remarkable in that it is accomplished with the help of a cast which, while able enough, isn’t calculated to set an impresario’s pulse pounding. Renata Scotto, the Butterfly, is an Italian soprano well versed in style and tradition but with a voice that tends to turn a mite edgy when it is pushed. Carlo Bergonzi, the Pinkerton, is a singer blessed with a naturally beautiful tenor but rather lacking in that hard-to-define quality known as temperament. Yet Bergonzi’s voice takes on an ardent and sensuous quality here such as he has seldom displayed before, while Miss Scotto sings with such unaffected and spontaneous directness that her voice seems just right for the naïve and trusting Japanese girl. The blend is exquisite, notably in the first act love duet, which is sung unforgettably. For once we seem to be listening to two people in love rather than to a pair of opera singers.

As for the birds, this is a recording which takes its life in its hands by harking back to the notorious opening-night failure of Madama Butterfly at La Scala in 1904. Historians are inclined to think that the demonstrations in the theater that night were instigated by an anti-Puccini cabal, but evidently there also were things in the score which set the crowd’s teeth on edge. One was the introduction of artificial birdcalls as a sound effect superimposed on the orchestral passage during which Butterfly gazes out over the sea at dawn as she vainly awaits her lover’s arrival. Birdcalls were unusual at La Scala, and when the audience heard the twitterings they derisively began to moo, bark, and bray.

This recording reintroduces the birdcalls at the opening of Act III, and gets away with them. In fact, they lighten the orchestral texture in a pleasant way for a few moments, even though the musical scene is atmospheric enough without them.

Butterfly aficionados may be interested in one extra little touch provided by Angel’s recording. In Act I, when Pinkerton asks the American consul Sharpless the famous but fatuous question “Milk-punch, o Wisky?” the official remains silent, instead of opting for whiskey, as the libretto indicates. Either this Sharpless is a teetotaler, or he totes his own.

The fiasco of Butterfly on its opening night was only momentary. Three months later, the opera, somewhat revised, had a second launching, and this time it became the success it has remained ever since. But Puccini did encounter one lasting failure in his musical career, an opera called La Rondine, which has just been given its first stereo recording by RCA Victor (LSC-7048: two records).

La Rondine is a curious little work. Puccini wrote it in mid-career, after Bohème and Butterfly, and before Il Trittico and Turandot. He worked on it for three years, writing, rewriting, revising. Yet after some initial success it quickly faded from the stage, and it is a rare opera company that gives it today.

All the same, it contains a good deal of charming music, especially in the first half. The trouble with La Rondine is that it starts out to be a wistful operetta and winds up being a weighty tragedy. Puccini’s original commission for it came from two Viennese producers who wanted him to write a waltz operetta. His publisher counseled him against writing music that would be “bad Lehár,” but Puccini went ahead nevertheless.

La Rondine — the title means “the swallow” — isn’t exactly bad Lehár, but neither is it supreme Puccini. Its subject, almost embarrassingly similar to Verdi’s La Traviata, is a romance between a pretty Paris courtesan and a poetic young man; its first two acts occur in an elegant salon and a student dance hall. In both of these Puccini, actually utilizing waltz rhythms with skill and smoothness, writes some lilting and captivating music. Particularly notable is “Doretta’s Dream,” a perfectly lovely and soaring romantic song for soprano. It is sung as the highlight of a gay Parisian party, and begins with a simple piano accompaniment — a novel and striking touch.

What really makes La Rondine a failure is Puccini’s inability to sustain the original light and winsome mood. The frivolity and flirtatiousness evaporate; the students and grisettes disappear; in Act III the two sinful lovers head for the Riviera and an inevitable parting while the music turns heavy, sour, and tedious. But the memory of numbers like “Doretta’s Dream” is hard to efface.

RCA Victor has given La Rondine a thoroughly attractive production, which is just as well since it gets so few of them. Francesco MolinariPradelli, who conducts the RCA Italiana Orchestra and Chorus, shows himself adept in Puccini’s “Viennese” style, and the role of Magda, the courtesan, finds soprano Anna Moffo giving one of her most graceful recorded performances. The rest of the cast includes such singers as Daniele Barioni, tenor, Mario Sereni, baritone, and Graziella Sciutti, soprano.

But the standout performer is an Italian comprimario named Piero de Palma, who performs the secondary role of Prunier, a cynical poet and hanger-on. A comprimario is a singer of minor parts, one notch above a chorister. De Palma is one of those who by sheer excellence of musicianship and clarity of diction know how to create vivid characters from the most modest of material. He also sings Goro, the marriage broker, in the new Angel Butterfly, and here, too, he turns a minor role into a major source of musical enjoyment.

And so, at last, to Alban Berg and his Wozzeck. Only since 1945 — twenty years after its premiere — has Berg’s atonal opera really been making headway in the world’s opera houses. When Rudolf Bing first took over the management of the Metropolitan in New York he listed Wozzeck among his ten favorite operas, but even so, it took him more than a decade to put it on there. Even now it can hardly be said to be a repertory piece at the Met, or anywhere else. A performance of Wozzeck always is an event, and so is a recording.

This is especially true of the present recording because Pierre Boulez conducts it. Boulez, the composer of such works as Le Marteau sans maître and Le Soleil des eaux, left Paris for Baden-Baden in 1959 because of what he regarded as the superficiality and conservatism of French musical life, but he comes back from time to time. In 1963 he put on Wozzeck at the Paris Opéra, the first time it had ever been given at that venerable house. He utilized the orchestra and chorus of the institution, but his cast wasn’t exactly all French: it included Walter Berry as Wozzeck, Isabel Strauss as Marie, Albert Weikenmeier as the captain, Carl Doench as the doctor, and Fritz Uhl as the drum major — the latter three being representative of the various human devils who torment poor Wozzeck to death.

Boulez’s performance had a powerful impact on its Parisian audiences, and it achieves the same in this recording. Among its other attributes, Wozzeck is a highly stageworthy piece, and Boulez delineates its dramatic outlines sharply and with a great sense of realism. This graphic quality is what distinguishes the new CBS recording from a Deutsche Grammophon version by Karl Böhm that came out last year (138991/2: two records). The DGG performance is impeccable and idiomatic; for sheer precision it surpasses the job done by Boulez’s musicians. But it also has a certain reverential quality, as though one were dealing in all deference with a modern classic rather than with a living stage work. Boulez finds more excitement in the score.

He also is responsible for an unusually comprehensive and illuminating set of analytical notes. In an extensive printed foreword, Boulez not only outlines the intricate formalism of the opera, but points out specific instances of interpretive challenge, such as the maintaining of the single underlying note B in various fluctuations and degrees of intensity while Wozzeck is building up toward the climactic murder of his common-law wife. Perhaps he makes some of his points with more clarity in his printed discourse than in his musical performance, but it’s a provocative analysis nevertheless. Boulez obviously is a conductor with ideas, insight, and energy. He certainly meets the challenge of Wozzeck. It might be interesting, just for the fun of it, to see what he could do with Butterfly.

Record Reviews

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica”

Karl Ristenpart conducting South German Philharmonic Orchestra; Checkmate C-76003 (stereo)

The Checkmate label is a new one, a subsidiary of Elektra, which already puts out an excellent bargainprice classical line called Nonesuch. Checkmate is a “sound” series — that is, its emphasis will be on technological advances in stereo, particularly the clarity made possible by an improvement called the Dolby Noise Reduction System. It really works, too, as evidenced by this sumptuous-sounding, crystal-clear recording. The big question is whether sonic excellence is enough to overcome the appeal of the bigname competition in this repertory. Karl Ristenpart and his South Germans give a respectable, even a superior, account of the Eroica, but without exactly putting Bernstein, Leinsdorf, Ormandy, and Solti out of business. Other releases in the first batch of Checkmates include Brahms’s First (C-76001) and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth (C-76004) by Charles Mackerras and the Hamburg Philharmonic, and Haydn’s Military and Drumroll symphonies (C-76002) by Leslie Jones and the Orchestra of London. The records, priced at $3.50, arc in stereo only.

Man Is Not Alone

Words of inspiration spoken by Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen, music composed and conducted by John Cacavas; Capitol ST-2754 (stereo) and T-2754 Man indeed is not alone, for Senator Dirksen is with him. A previous release by the senator, Gallant Men, had a patriotic inspiration, and this one finds its impulse in religion. With the musical as well as moral support of a chorus and orchestra, the senator delivers biblical readings, prayer recitations, inspirational anecdotes, and passages of what doubtlessly are original verses. Presumably it’s all in the silver-tongued, golden-throated William Jennings Bryan tradition. But surely the material could be better handled. The senator’s reading of Henley’s “Invictus” is fine, for example, but the murky, interminable musical setting that follows is enough to make unbelievers of us all.

Warm, Wonderful, Wunderlich

Fritz Wunderlich, tenor, with Graunke Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Carste; Heliodor HS-25063 (stereo) and H-25063

Despite the alliterative excesses of its title, this record adds further evidence of the artistry and appeal of Fritz Wunderlich, the German tenor who died in an accident last year at the age of thirty-five, just before he was due to make his American debut at the Metropolitan Opera. In addition to his operatic qualifications he had a flair for such lighter songs as Toselli’s “Serenade,” Martini’s “Plaisir d’amour,” Dvořák’s “Humoreske,” and the like. All display his facility and individuality.

Brahms: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Opus 34

Artur Rubinstein, pianist, and Guarneri Quartet; RCA Victor LSC-2971 (stereo) and LM-2971

Artur Rubinstein isn’t exactly a stranger to chamber music, but neither is he one of its most tireless practitioners. What lends interest to this recording is that it marks the beginning of what will be a continuing collaboration between the veteran pianist and the youthful ensemble. Already the Schumann Quintet has been recorded, and other works by Brahms and Fauré will follow. As for the F Minor Quintet, it is played with admirable clarity, balance, and plenty of dramatic intensity. Rubinstein and the Guarneris obviously have some exciting musical adventures ahead.

The Astrology Album

Produced and conducted by Gary Usher; Columbia CS-9489 (stereo) and CL2689

Astrology is a latecomer to records, but its arrival takes an amiable and possibly instructive form — a record giving a brief description of the human characteristics to be found beneath each of the signs, according to date of birth. Your lucky number, lucky day of the week, key planet, key word, most becoming fashion color — it’s all here, along with a big zodiac wall chart. Not the sort of thing to replay every day, naturally, but a good party record. For some reason, it has been deemed necessary to include the voices of such entertainers as Jeremy Clyde and Chad Stuart of Chad and Jeremy to substantiate the authenticity of the astrological findings. What’s the matter: don’t they think we believe?

Ogden Nash: Everybody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

Recited by the author, RCA Victor VDM-114 (monaural only)

“The verses in this album are nearly all new, and I chose them because I am nearly all old,” writes Ogden Nash in a message imprinted upon the jacket of this record. But have no fear: the Nash verses are as unwithered, unstaled, and unruly as ever, and every bit as pointed. Here’s a sharp bit of advice to husbands, for instance:

“To keep your marriage happy
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it,
Whenever you’re right, shut up.”

The rest covers the range of human experience, from ducks to dogs to doctors, with all the recitations in clear, crisp, and businesslike style, as if Mr. Nash meant every word of it, as well he might.

Rodgers and Hammerstein: South Pacific

Florence Henderson, Giorgio Tozzi, Irene Byatt, Justin McDonough, and others,with Jonathan Anderson conducting orchestra and chorus; Columbia OS-3100 (stereo) and OL-6700

Once we acknowledge that nothing is ever going to displace the original original-cast recording of South Pacific with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, we are in a position to acknowledge that this “original cast” album (for so it is labeled) of the 1967 Lincoln Center production is an excellent job indeed. Giorgio Tozzi’s ample, operatic basso is simply sumptuous in “Some Enchanted Evening" and “This Nearly Was Mine,” and Florence Henderson is surprisingly close to the Martin model in the role of Nellie Forbush. Perhaps the weakest element is that of Irene Byatt’s Bloody Mary, a dim echo of the Juanita Hall original. Some things nobody will ever replace.

Berlioz: Overtures to King Lear, Les Franes-Juges, Roman Carnival, Waverley, The Corsair

Colin Davis conducting London Symphony Orchestra; Philips PHS-900138 (stereo) and PHM-500138

Hector Berlioz found inspiration for the overtures on this record in such diverse sources as Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, and Lord Byron, but wherever he started he always wound up with brilliant, ardent romantic music. Colin Davis and the London Symphony match him stride for stride, sigh for sigh in these wonderfully rich, rousing, and full-bodied performances. All represent Berlioz as he should be played, but perhaps the most thrilling to hear is Le Corsaire, as surging and salty a seascape as exists in all music.

Men and Women of Shakespeare

Irene Worth and Sir John Gielgud; RCA Victor VDS-115 (stereo) and VDM-115

This Shakespearean anthology proceeds from the premise that the way to make a good spoken record is merely to transcribe a good stage performance. Such proves, once again, not to be the case, for although Gielgud and Miss Worth scored a success when they took this program on tour, the recording often finds the meanings of words and lines obscured by dramatic underlinings and inflections. Besides, these Shakespearean snippets seem rather inconsequential beside the magnificent series of the complete plays so readily available.