Saturday, September 22, 2007

Anna Moffo as Madama Butterfly

To call someone an “overnight sensation” is usually the laziest sort of journalistic cliché. Usually years of training and dues-paying precede a performer’s “overnight” discovery.

But if the term can be applied to anyone with justice, it might be soprano Anna Moffo. In January 1956 she was a 23-year-old singer who, after graduating from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, had come to Rome on a Fulbright scholarship to continue her voice studies. Her professional opera debut had come just a few months before in Spoleto, a small city outside Rome, where she had sung the role of Norina in Donizetti’s comedy Don Pasquale. But then director Mario Lanfranchi cast this unknown singer in the lead role for his television production of Puccini’s tragedy Madama Butterfly. Broadcast by Radiotelevisione Italia on 24 January, 1956 (at least that's the date of an audio-only recording), Moffo's performance as Cio-Cio San made her--yes, overnight--an international star.

Video Artists International has released a DVD of this broadcast, and it’s easy to see why it created such a sensation. Moffo is a radiant and heartbreaking Butterfly; if she doesn’t quite look 15 in Act I, she is certainly very young-looking. She is slim and graceful, a convincing maiko; her dimples are irresistible.

And what a voice! Whether she’s soaring lyrically over the orchestra in her climactic aria “Un bel di” or floating delicately soft tones in her final moments of despair, Moffo’s singing is simply stunning.

She’s well supported by the Suzuki of Miti Truccato Pace and especially Afro Poli’s American consul Sharpless. Renato Coni’s callow American officer Pinkerton is self-involved and a bit annoying, and it’s not clear whether those are aspects of the character or the singer. And as the marriage broker Goro, Gino Del Signore (like every Goro I’ve seen) can’t avoid portraying a painfully racist stereotype.

The production is a bit threadbare, although Lanfranchi’s fluid camerawork makes the most of the somewhat cramped set. Oliviero de Fabritis’ conducting of the Orchestra & Chorus of Radiotelevision Italiana Milano is sympathetic; the sound is a bit compressed at climaxes, but otherwise acceptable (the gorgeousness of Moffo’s voice comes through clearly). The picture is a bit washed-out looking at places, and there are a few moments of poor synchronization between the soundtrack (recorded before filming) and the movements of the singer’s lips.

But if you’re willing to make allowances for the age and technical limitations of the source, which truly aren’t very bothersome, you'll be rewarded by Moffo’s amazing performance, for which no allowances need to be made. Over the following decade and a half she would go on to become a famous performer of both comedic and tragic heroines, until the toll that her meteoric rise and subsequent overwork took on her voice could no longer be disguised. But knowledge of Moffo’s own tragedy isn’t necessary to find her Butterfly to be truly heartbreaking. Moffo’s career was too short, but what a glorious beginning.

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