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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly (1904)
Mirella Freni (soprano) Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly); Plácido Domingo (tenor) B. F. Pinkerton; Christa Ludwig (mezzo) Suzuki; Robert Kerns (baritone) Sharpless; Michel Sénéchal (tenor) Goro; Marius Rintzler (bass) The Bonze; Elke Schary (mezzo) Kate; Giorgio Stendoro (baritone) Prince Yamadori;
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor;
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan.
Rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, in January and September 1974. DDD
Staged, Directed and Designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
Filmed at Union Film, Berlin, in November - December 1974;
Picture format: NTSC Colour 4:3. Region Code 0 (Worldwide).
Sound formats PCM Stereo; DTS 5.0.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD 073 4037 [145'00]

 

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 my uncle.

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.

Colin Clarke

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