Ponselle's film of
Butterfly is an interesting affair.
Some may detect an over-reliance on
dream-sequence, and there is a slight
soft-focus feel about it all. There's
a fair amount of singer's thoughts (asides)
being presented as just that – the singer's
mouth is closed, yet he/she (usually
she, here) sings Puccini's lines.
Better perhaps to see
Domingo as Pinkerton than as conductor
(Dynamic 33457). He is in his element
here, and is part of a magnificent cast.
Only the conductor, Karajan, seems out
of the Puccinian orbit. The orchestra
is magnificent, granted - the VPO usually
are. However his egotistic way with
textures, rounding the more raw amongst
them, reminds us of what the Karajan-phenomenon
was. Yet despite this the opera still
touches the viewer. Emotions can and
indeed do appear heightened.
Ponselle begins the
film with a sepia Domingo (i.e. Pinkerton)
crashing through a Japanese paper wall,
running away manically and meeting the
principal characters in the drama. This
is in fact a shot from the very end
of the film, as Pinkerton escapes in
horror at Cio-Cio-San's suicide. It
almost detracts too much from the superb
string playing - so together at speed!
- but it does indicate the filmic view
of the Director. Scenes will fade in
and out, merging into one another in
a way impossible in the theatre.
Goro and Pinkerton
make a well-matched pair in the opening
scene. Goro is in a boater and has a
worryingly fixed smile; Pinkerton is
clearly laddish, with a real glint in
his eye. He is certainly possessed of
complete self-confidence. A shame the
'Karajan stodge' detracts somewhat in
the earlier scenes, as Christa Ludwig's
Suzuki is absolutely top-notch. Warm
of voice and character, utterly dedicated
to Butterfly, Ludwig acts as well as
she sings. Her voice is completely beautiful
– try her dolente listing of the gods
at the beginning of Act 2, for example;
a scene in which this reviewer for one
found the rather strange split-screen
effects rather off-putting.
The pitting of Ludwig
and Freni as the two principal female
singers is inspired. Freni is in total
control of her voice but alas she does
not look in the slightest bit Japanese;
neither does Ludwig particularly either.
Also, Butterfly is supposed to be 15
years old. It even says so in the libretto.
If this Butterfly is fifteen, Goro is
The meeting of Butterfly
and Pinkerton - now in uniform - sets
out the chemistry these two have. They
are clearly intrigued by each other,
both from such different worlds. And
there is humour here too, when Goro
arrives with the platoon of relatives.
The formidable Bonze
is Marius Rintzler, imposing and frightening
in one. Yet it is the final stages of
Act 1 that impress most. The atmosphere
is highly sexually charged and brings
the best out of Freni and Domingo.
Freni it is that tugs
at the heart-strings most in Act 2,
sweet when she gives Sharpless his boots
to put on - as if to negate the
Japanese in her. The use of slow-motion
by Ponselle as Butterfly and Suzuki
strew petals all around in preparation
for Pinkerton's return works well.
The film moves straight
on between acts, as if to emphasise
the inevitability of Butterfly's self-inflicted
end. More dream sequences – including
a Hokusai-like Mount Fuji and some ball-dancing.
It is in the final
stages of the opera that Freni really
reaches her peak, a peak matched by
Domingo - whose Addio, fiorito asil
is marvellously emotive. In contrast,
Kate (Elke Schary) is hard-faced, evidently
not a part of this world.
Of course the final
suicide thrills. Such is Puccini's way
with our emotions though his music.
Karajan does pace the drama well, if
not in the final analysis with the naturalness
of a native.
of the new DVD releases of the Deutsche
Grammophon Unitel range