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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


DVD Review
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly
Opera in Three Acts
Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) …………….Raina Kabaivanska
Suzuki…………………………………………Eleonora Jankovic
Lieutenant Pinkerton………………………….Nazzareno Antinori
Sharpless………………………………………Lorenzo Saccomani
Goro………………………………………… Mario Ferrara
Prince Yamadori………………………………Giuseppe Zecchillo
The Bonze……………………………………. Gianni Brunelli
Kate Pinkerton…………………………………Marisa Zotti
Chorus and Orchestra of the Arena di Verona conducted by
Maurizio Arena.
Directed for Video by Brian Large
Recorded at the Arena di Verona in July 1983.
DVD - NVC ARTS/WARNER MUSIC VISION 4509-99220-2 [144 mins]

 

 

The huge wide open spaces of the stage of the Arena di Verona are a mixed blessing when one considers the smaller scale and intimacy of Puccini's ever-popular Butterfly. It is a tribute to Brian Large's clever direction that he keeps his cameras under firm control concentrating on close-ups with minimal disturbing camera movement and only pulling back for the wider vistas of the 'crowd scenes' like the arrival of the wedding party and the end-of-act 'curtain calls'. The stage setting is constant throughout - the outside of the Japanese house of Cio-Cio-Can, and its garden that occupies a considerable portion of the Arena stage. The costumes are colourful and lavish.

Background - Butterfly's special appeal

Puccini's greatest opera had its difficulties. The first performance in Milan was hissed - it fell foul of rival musical factions. Succeeding performances prompted Puccini to make cuts that never really satisfied him. [The question always remains whether he cut too much. As evidence of his indecision there were four different versions of Madama Butterfly to choose from. It is generally agreed that the best solution is to make all or most of the Puccini-approved cuts, but to retain his original two-act format and sometimes to restore passages usually omitted, if or when the occasion demands it.] Although the brief booklet notes (printed in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian with the actual production subtitles in the same languages) do not specify it, it would seem that this Italian production is based on the three-act French premiere production of 1906 given at the Paris Opéra-Comique.

The following quote from Conrad Wilson's book, Giacomo Puccini (Phaidon Press -1997) is interesting:- "Madama Butterfly is Puccini's greatest opera. In it he achieved a beauty, subtlety, and intensity of utterance he never surpassed. Bohème was more perfect, Tosca more powerful and his later works more sophisticated but Butterfly was the lynchpin of his entire output, and his long struggles with it suggest that he was aware of the fact. It formed the summit of his melodious 'middle-period' which had begun eleven years earlier with Manon Lescaut. It marked the end of a strongly personal and lyrical line of works and he knew it. Thereafter, ever more keenly attuned to what was happening elsewhere in Europe, he would strike out in new directions … His infiltration into it of Japanese tunes, pentatonic scales, and the tinkle of little bells has been dismissed as naïve - music of the 'Postcard from Nagasaki' variety. But it is done with such beautiful discretion, and it merges so effortlessly with Puccini's own Italianism, that the effect is invariably touching, shedding Puccini's own special light on Butterfly's vulnerable personality. To call it kitsch would be to miss the point. To suggest that it will outlive the refined but inert music of Toro Takemitsu - Puccini's Japanese obverse and today's most celebrated linksman between the music of East and West - may seem rude, but it is a point worth making on Puccini's behalf."

The Verona Production

As a cock-sure, irresponsible Pinkerton, eager to have his way with his innocent young 'bride' ("I look forward to the day I have a real wedding to a real wife in America"), Nazzareno Antinori is most convincing. His is a virile and heady light medium-toned tenor voice that blends well with the smooth baritone of the wiser, more responsible Sharpless sympathetically portrayed by Lorenzo Saccomani. The entrance of Butterfly is striking - with outstretched arms holding the voluminous sleeves of her kimono she actually suggests a Butterfly impaled, a brilliant theatrical touch. Raina Kabaivanska has the purity of voice to make her Butterfly appealingly vulnerable. There are times, however, in the first act when she seems much older than the 15 year-old Cio-Cio-San (one or two close-ups betray some unflattering wrinkles) and she could have been more coy and uncertain in her movements. In fact during the famous love duet with Pinkerton that climaxes Act I it almost appears as if she is leading him on. The Bonze, as portrayed by Gianni Brunelli, in warning Butterfly that by marrying Pinkerton she is betraying her people and her religion, looks forbidding enough but the voice is too weak to really convince.

Act II is most poignantly realised. Suzuki (tenderly and sympathetically sung by Eleonora Jankovic) is torn between expressing a barely restrained impatience and the need to console and protect her young mistress who is determined to cosset her dream of Pinkerton as her shining white American hero. Kabaivanska is much more convincing in Act II, vulnerable and pathetically, obstinately optimistic as she sings 'One fine day' full of hope and yearning yet incredibly sad too. Her duet with Sharpless as she keeps interrupting him as, in vain, he tries to read Pinkerton's letter in which the naval officer confesses that he has married Kate is equally moving. She is on the other hand harsh and cruel to the attentions of the rich Japanese suitor, Prince Yamadari, that the street-wise Goro is trying to foist on her to replace the unfaithful Pinkerton. In this role of Yamadari, Zecchillo is too intellectual-looking and not as dull and stupid as the role surely demands. (Ferrara makes a splendidly knowing and cheeky Goro,the match-maker). The humming chorus that rounds off Act II is most moving as Cio-Cio-San prepares for the long night vigil awaiting the return of Pinkerton. Act III begins in heightened pathos as the chorus heralds the dawn after Cio-Cio-San's fruitless vigil. Again one of the highlights is the beautifully blended and controlled duet between Pinkerton now full of remorse and Sharpless. Kabaivanska impresses throughout, too proud to sink into poverty and beg preferring an honourable death to disgrace. The final scene is very moving and Kabaivanska, at curtain call, is visibly emotionally drained by the experience. The only really jarring element in Act III is Zotti, too matronly for the role of Kate Pinkerton - surely a younger, prettier girl could have been found for this minor part; the sight of her ample, almost grandmotherly frame destroys all belief in the drama - how could any Pinkerton abandon Butterfly for such a figure?

An enjoyable lavish production of Puccini's ever-popular opera

Ian Lace


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