Review by Joseph Ponessa January 16, 2015 (5 of 5 found this review helpful)
|The year was 1974, in which Herbert von Karajan made two recordings of MADAMA BUTTERFLY. Actually he made one-and-a-half recordings.
In January he went to the Sofiensaal in Vienna and made the first, audio-only recording for Decca, with Luciano Pavarotti as Pinkerton. For some reason when time came to make the Unitel film later in the year, it was determined that Placido Domingo should assume that role, perhaps because of Pavarotti's weight gain which was deemed uncinematic. So in September everybody necessary went back to Vienna and retaped the relevant portions of the recording with Domingo. Then in November and December they went to the Union Film Studios in Berlin to tape the film as directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
Everybody except the two tenors have all the same roles in both the audio and the film release. Karajan remixed the audio for the film with the re-recorded segments.
The video has been released in a number of different formats, including Laserdisc, DVD and now Blu-ray. The audio version has just been released on Blu-ray also, and it is interesting to compare the two versions. They are mixed quite differently. Karajan plays around with volume controls more on the audio, to create the illusion of a stage space, but he leaves the audio straight on the video.
The BD-V has a choice of stereo LPCM versus DTS HD-MA 5.1. The stereo is slightly preferable to me, with more natural vocal production, especially by Domingo, who was early in his career and had not yet begun the slide into baritonal range.
The BD-A has the choice of stereo LPCM versus stereo Dolby TrueHD. The Dolby TrueHD allows both Pavarotti and Karajan to shine, with magnificent tonalities. Pavarotti may have no longer looked like a Pinkerton, but he had an ideal voice for the role.
Mirella Freni, one of the greatest Butterflies of all time, comes across equally well in both versions. (Note: there is a raging tempest out there over Decca's mistake in listing Joan Sutherland on the spine of the blu-ray release. Freni is correctly credited, however, on the back cover and in the jacket.)
Which performance is better? They both are. Better than anything being sung or conducted today. The two, historical SACD recordings with Leontyne Price and Maria Callas hold their own as well for both vocality and sound quality. These four recordings stand at the head of the pack -- two of them sung by Freni and three of them conducted by Karajan. Or rather two-and-a-half of them.
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