> Puccini - Madame Butterfly [IL]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly

Opera in three acts
Madama Butterfly (Cio-cio-san) …..Mirella Freni
B.F. Pinkerton………………………Placido Domingo
Suzuki………………………………Christa Ludwig
Sharpless ………………………… Robert Kerns
Goro……………………………… Michel Sénéchal
The Bonzo………………………….Marius Rintzler
Kate Pinkerton…………………… Elke Schary
Prince Yamadori…………………. Giorgio Stendoro
Konzer Tvereinigung Wiener Staatsoper
Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan
1974 film directed by Jean-Pierre Ponelle
DECCA DVD 071 404-9 [144 mins]


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It should be understood that this is not a theatre experience. You will not see a proscenium arch or an orchestra in the pit and you won’t see the cast taking a final curtain bow; and you certainly will not see the conductor Herbert von Karajan (who died in 1989, 15 years after this production). It is a film, if I am correctly interpreting the cover symbol - © 1974 - made over 25 years ago: indeed, Placido Domingo looks remarkably young and Mirella Freni also looks to be in her prime and the presence of Christa Ludwig would seem to prove the date. The image and the sound have been refurbished and reprocessed to boast DVD quality images and Surround Stereo sound.

As a film this Madama Butterfly often employs a different visual dimension which has its advantages and drawbacks. Sometimes the director believes some of the lines of an aria are best expressed as thoughts rather than overt song, so we hear these with the singers closed-mouthed. As if this was not distracting and disconcerting enough, we have some too clever-clever camera angles. One such angle, is shot high, looking down on Pinkerton and Cio-cio-san showing them in their enraptured first act duet as they lie entwined in the wild unkempt and flowerless garden of their little house. The effect is, therefore, anything but intimate and romantic. Other close-ups are equally intrusive and unflattering like those capturing the hapless over-perspiring Sharpless. The final shot of Cio-cio-san committing suicide in front of a shocked Pinkerton who then smashes away through the paper-thin walls in his horrified and panicked flight is unnecessarily harrowing. On the other hand, the house set looks realistic and the camera moves about in it naturally enough. There are moments of visual delight too: Cio-cio-san and Suzuki strewing flowers about the house, in Act II in anticipation of Pinkerton’s return. And, at the closing of Act II, the approach of nightfall, with the garden and the front of the house gradually darkening to a pinpoint of red light as we hear the lovely humming chorus.

The casting with the exception of Kate Pinkerton (who appears too old and hardly American) is well considered.

Karajan directs his cast in his typical effulgent Puccini style of this period of his career. Freni captivates throughout with a well-nigh flawless performance: a vulnerable, innocent and pathetically, unshakeably optimistic Butterfly ultimately disillusioned yet too proud to take any way out but suicide. Domingo, looking young and dashing, grips the attention as Pinkerton turning from a thoughtless but well-meaning bounder to a maturity full of anguish and remorse. Domingo’s and Freni’s long and tempestuous love duet that concludes Act I is passionate indeed. Christa Ludwig makes a compassionate and concerned Suzuki and Robert Kerns a patient and sympathetic Sharpless. Michel Sénéchal’s Goro is marvellously oily and slyly grasping and Marius Rintzler makes a frightening Il Bonzo.

Harsh or ill-considered camera angles tend to give this production a rather too-realistic look that makes a rather absurd plot (especially considering the implications of the last Act) seem even more absurd. But you can wallow in the wonderful musical performances.

Ian Lace

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