Max Rudolf

Puccini: Madame Butterfly

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This 1949 recording of Madama Butterfly made by Columbia features two of America's best-known, homegrown opera stars of the era, Eleanor Steber and Richard Tucker, with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Max Rudolf. It's a solid version of the opera; there are no weak links, its leads fully live up to their reputations, and the performance has the urgency and drive usually associated with live recordings. Rudolf's impassioned conducting unabashedly exploits the emotion of the score, sweeping the listener up in the drama, and the Met Orchestra responds with playing of fiery intensity. (The violins' high pizzicati are occasionally a little dicey, though.) Steber and Tucker are in excellent form vocally, and their performances are dramatically charged. Steber is a truly memorable Cio-Cio-San. The recording was made near the start of her career, and her voice has a wonderful, glowing freshness. She manages to convey Cio-Cio-San's innocent girlishness, even though her rich voice is powerful enough to easily negotiate the role's vocal demands, and that youthfulness makes the mature grief and resolute decisiveness of the last act all the more effective. Steber's convulsive sobs on learning of her betrayal are almost unbearably poignant, and the opera's conclusion is stunning in its power. Tucker, singing with ringing tone, charm, and bravado, is ideal as Pinkerton. Giuseppe Valdengo makes an unusually dignified and compassionate Sharpless, and Jean Madeira's Suzuki is warm, colorful, and deeply felt. The sound is vintage, a little hollow, but generally clean, with good balance. This is a version of Madama Butterfly that deserves the attention of opera fans because of its overall strength, but particularly for Steber's knock-out performance.

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