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.