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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly (1904).
Cheryl Barker (soprano) - Cio-Cio-San; Martin Thompson (tenor) - Pinkerton; Catherine Keen (mezzo) - Suzuki; Richard Stilwell (baritone) - Sharpless; Anneleen Bijnen (mezzo) - Kate; Peter Blanchet (tenor) - Goro; Roger Smeets (baritone) - Yamadori; Anrezej Saciuk (bass) - Bonze; Harry Teeuwen (baritone) - Yakusidé
Chorus of Netherlands Opera
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Edo de Waart.
Includes Cast Gallery, Synopsis & illustrated talk. Subtitles. All regions. PAL. LPCM Stereo.
Rec. live at Het Musiektheater, Amsterdam in 2003.
OPUS ARTE OA0936D [2 DVDs: 169'00]

Of the various DVD incarnations of Butterfly that have come my way so far, this is the one that satisfies the most. There is no single star in the cast. The conducting is unfailingly musical. The production is simply superb.

Robert Wilson (stage director) has taken away all trappings of staging, so that there are no paper walls. tatami mats etc. Rather, a stark stage depends on coloured lighting, and it is in this simplicity that the success lies. It throws into relief the onstage drama, a drama enacted almost ritualistically. Movements are mostly stylised, invoking in themselves ancient Japanese ritual. Of course, textual references to the house's design and features have to be mimed. A small price to pay. The picture itself is crystal clear, itself a prerequisite for this production – the intensity and nuance of the various colours has to be expertly reproduced if this is to succeed. Much of this is discussed in the 'extra', in which de Waart also comments on the many markings in Puccini's score – as many as in Mahler. The care he brings to the orchestral contribution seems to confirm his wish to conform to Puccini's wishes.

Complementing the production is an orchestra (Netherlands Philharmonic) under Edo de Waart that plays with simply huge amounts of energy - just try the very opening. The cast is almost as good. Inevitably there is a weak link; a shame it has to be the Pinkerton, here tenor Martin Thompson. His 'Dovunque al mondo' is merely nice, but he is no Domingo and his evident lack of real power looks at that point set to be a real disadvantage – as it subsequently proves to be. Domingo's luxuriant reserves stand him in good stead in his DVD film with Karajan and Freni (review ). The onstage exchanges as the chorus leaves in Act 1 is just another example of many.

His Butterfly, Cheryl Barker, is in a different league entirely, and a more exalted one. Her entrance is, appropriately, slow and ceremonial; the sense of the off-stage well realised. Barker's sensitivity is her greatest asset in this part, but we should not forget the strength of her high register - also called upon, of course. The final stages of Act 1 (Pinkerton and Butterfly together) are interesting from a movement point of view, with Pinkerton mirroring Butterfly's movements – and then at one point it looks as if he's giving her Reiki! (the Reiki link recurs at the end of Act 2). Again a vocal failing from Pinkerton spoils the moment, as he tries to be ardent at 'Vieni, Vieni', which finds him trying but failing to be up there with the greats. The Bonze - as wide, physically, as they come - looks fantastic but vocally lacks some of the requisite authority.

Suzuki is the excellent Catherine Keen, her Act 2 prayer ardent and believable. The combination of Keen and Barker is a winning one – Barker pitches the first note of 'Un bel dì vedremo' to perfection. Perhaps she is not always powerful enough down low, however.

Sharpless (Richard Stilwell) confirms the steadfastness he displayed in Act 1 – he rises to his best in the 'letter scene' with Butterfly later in this act. A shame that the Yamadori (Roger Smeets) is on the weak side vocally. On a staging level, it is in Act 2 that the stylised aspect comes into its own. These very movements give the characters the aspect of pieces moving around a chessboard - an entirely appropriate image. The final Suzuki/Butterfly moments of this act are pure magic.

The strong morning (yellow) colours of Act 3's opening enable the characters to be experienced in sharp visible relief. The delicate web of string sound from de Waart creates just the right ambience. Again, it is the Pinkerton who scuppers things slightly by a weak 'Addio, fiorita asil'. All is made good by the handling of Kate Pinkerton, however. She is dressed in white - the other end of the colour spectrum from Butterfly's black, of course - emphasising the distance between them. The closing scenes of the opera are incredibly touching. Of course, screens cannot be drawn (as Butterfly asks) as they are simply not there – it has to be mimed – but the starkness of the staging only seems to focus us on Butterfly's plight.

A superb DVD that now becomes my top video recommendation for this opera. The production is top-notch, and the orchestral contribution the strongest I have yet to hear.

 

Colin Clarke

see also Cheryl Barker in La Boheme

 

 



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