The fourth and latest batch of Living Stereo SACD reissues from BMG consists of four classic opera recordings. Butterfly dates from 1962 and was the first complete opera recorded in the brand new RCA Italiana Rome studios. Following preparatory chorus and orchestra rehearsals, it took ten recording sessions to complete. The orchestra has some Japanese bells and a Japanese tamtam added to the usual percussion section, and their are both bird sound effects a cannon shot announcing the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship in the harbor. The recording engineers disturbed much of Rome trying repeatedly to get just the right sound outdoors for the distant canon.
The main voices and all other musicians involved are just superb. A major effort was made to make this the finest operatic recording RCA had yet done. Both Price and Tucker were in top voice. The opera is odd in that Pinkerton doesn’t really have anything that could be called a real aria in the entire opera. Also that he’s the main tenor in the opera and yet he’s really the villain. Although set in a make-believe 1900s Japan, the story is rather realistic. Though Puccini trots out all the sentimental equipment at his grasp, one cannot help being still truly affected by the sad fate of Cio-Cio-San.
Nearly all of the more recent Living Stereo reissues have been three channel rather than two. I think that was a deliberate choice. If you are limited to playback of only the two channel option on these discs – even if via SACD – you would probably do better with the LPs – either the originals or reissues, and a good analog front end. The center channel adds immensely to the depth and width of the soundstage, and the effectiveness of offstage voices (and the cannon). There is more impact, separation of the different singers, and generally a grander impression in keeping with the fact this is, after all, grand opera.
If you do have a three-front-channel setup, the importance of identical or at least similar speakers all across the front cannot be overemphasized. Or at least similar mid-range drivers – the center doesn’t have to necessarily deliver the deep bass of the left and right speakers if you have a decent subwoofer. Just as a comparison, I put a pair of the Orb spheres – which serve as the center channel of their best home theater speaker system – on top of my normal Von Schweikert center channel speaker and switched connection to it. Doesn’t work. When paired with Orbs all around it works beautifully, but the timbre is just too different from the rest of my reference speakers, and all the advantages of the third channel in front fall away.
– John Sunier