When Giacomo Puccini premiered "Madame Butterfly" in February 1904, a performance that failed due to a hostile, anti-Puccini audience, the opera was conducted by Arturo Toscanini. When the work was revised and reintroduced in May 1904, the conductor was again Toscanini. In 1910, the composer came to the Metropolitan Opera in New York to hear Toscanini conduct it once more. Puccini wrote "Girl of the Golden West" specifically for the Met and Toscanini. He even specified in his will that no one but Toscanini was to conduct the world premiere of his last opera, "Turandot" (which he did).
The reason I mention all of this is to indicate that Toscanini was Puccini's favorite conductor of his scores. The reason he liked Toscanini was that the conductor pulled together disparate musical elements to produce a cohesive whole, with tension, elasticity and great attention to orchestral detail. In other words, he did not sentimentalize this already sentimental music; he did not allow the singers to over-dramatize in a way that overshadowed the structure of the score.
Though Toscanini did not officially record "Butterfly," there exists a 1928 recording of the opera with soprano Rosetta Pampanini and an orchestra and chorus meticulously rehearsed by Toscanini for performances at La Scala; thus, even though Lorenzo Molajoli's name is on the label, this is often considered the "Toscanini Butterfly." Unfortunately, the poor sonics of that era do not allow one to hear textures very clearly, and the inevitable "side breaks" of the 78-rpm era make for some uncomfortable cuts and splices.
This 1954 recording conducted by Gavazzeni, who greatly admired Toscanini and his approach, goes a long way toward presenting the opera as MUSIC, not melodrama. Taking the marked, faster tempi that most conductors avoid, he gives us a first act that is positively bucolic in its synergy, and in the long, terrible, inexorable Act 2, he does not allow one excess gulp, sob or over-accented word from his singers. In the meantime, he also brings out all the Oriental flavor of the orchestration that Puccini put into it, more so than any other conductor; and his three principals-de los Angeles, di Stefano and Gobbi-sing with a beauty of tone and attention to line that is remarkable. Many times during the first part of Act 2, the soprano's tone was so effortless, so golden, that I was reminded of a comment that tenor Tito Schipa once made: "Put the words on the lips, and let the breath run them out." Yet for all the exceptional solo singing, the most stunning moment of this recording comes in the "Humming Chorus." Gavazzeni has so perfectly balanced his orchestra and chorus that they give the aural impression of fireflies.
A word of caution, however: because this is a monophonic recording, the singers are all miked exceptionally forward. This means that one should NOT play it at a loud volume, otherwise it will sound harsh and shrill. Keep it at a moderate listening level, and you will discover a "Butterfly" unlike any other, a swirling mélange of musical elements that envelops the listener in its own special sauce. Shorn of slow tempi, bombast and vocal hysterics, "Madame Butterfly" is indeed the magical world Puccini intended it to be.