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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly, an opera in three acts (1904) [143.00]
Olga Busuioc, Cio-Cio-San; Joshua Guerrero, Pinkerton; Carlo Bosi, Goro; Elizabeth DeShong, Suzuki; Michael Sumuel, Sharpless;
Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Omer Meir Welber
rec. live, 14 October 2016, Glyndebourne, UK
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo/Surround 5.1; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; All Regions; Subtitles in English, French, German, Korean, Japanese; notes and synopsis in English
Reviewed in surround
OPUS ARTE OABD7166D Blu-ray [151 mins]

For the home, opera has finally met its best carrier in Blu-ray. At last we can see the staging with clarity and impact, added to which we have the best sound achieved so far to accompany the picture, especially in surround where the audience is often around the listener adding atmosphere. There is just one downside to this achievement and that is the fact that many of us 'old-timers' have learned our operas from sound recordings, and we bring those studio-derived expectations to modern live performances. Comparisons, as they say, are odious. Unfortunately they are also the basis for any sort of critical reviewing. There is a strong temptation to judge each new disc as if it needs to be 'the best', or 'the library recording'. There are endless discussions online questioning which is the best recording of such and such a piece, discussions which serve only one useful purpose, and that is to provide a starting point in learning the music, not an end point to how a work must sound.

For Madama Butterfly I carry three pieces of baggage: Karajan, Barbirolli and a hatred of regietheater. From Karajan comes my belief that this opera is a major tragedy in which the orchestra plays at least as significant a role as the singers; from Barbirolli that it is one of the most beautiful lyric creations in 20th century opera, and as for director Annilese Miskimmon, thankfulness that she is not a regiedirector but someone who is sensitive to what the opera is actually about. She says in her excellent 2016 Guardian interview "I see this opera as a beautiful red apple with a poisonous worm at the heart." The only major change she makes to Puccini, Giacosa and Illica's meticulously constructed plot is to move it closer in time to post WW2, instead of pre- WW1. This has more impact on the First Act than the Second, and triggers the costume designer into making a couple of unhappy decisions. The most important one is to bundle Butterfly into an overgenerous costume as if Cio-Cio-San is not so much a naive young Japanese girl as someone used to post-war austerity who is trying to keep warm. Only at the end when she has donned a simple white kimono does she look fragile. Secondly the chorus suffers from much the same problem and no-one looks either oriental or delicate. Thus the obeisances that go on when the Japanese party meet the Westerners look unconvincing despite being so well acted by a superb cast. The other change, very obvious on disc, and presumably projected for the Glyndebourne audience at the performance, was to frame the two acts with uncomfortable newsreel clips about Yanks marrying Japanese girls and how the latter were being taught to be American wives. How times have changed; for the better one hopes.

The key players mentioned in my header, Joshua Guerrero as Pinkerton, Carlo Bosi as Goro, Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki, Michael Sumuel as Sharpless and Olga Busuioc as Butterfly herself, are all marvellous. It is unfair to pick any of them out, but I have to mention especially Michael Sumuel who reacts to every stage of this dreadful story with growing horror and concern. His is a heartbreakingly fine portrayal of a sensitive man unable to change the course of events which he knows spell doom for Cio-Cio-San. Elizabeth DeShong's Suzuki protects her young charge with unbridled ferocity and a set of facial expressions that could easily be weaponised - wonderful! Olga Busuioc as Butterfly is easier to enjoy in the Second Act when she is uneasily clad in an 'American' suit and her discomfort is vastly more than physical. She herself is not just a victim, she has deluded herself to the point of madness. She refers to her clearly black-haired and brown eyed little son as 'golden haired and blue-eyed' because that is what he is in her mind. Sharpless quickly picks up on this but repeats the description because he cannot bear to correct this poor young woman who only has her illusions. The staging is full of such subtleties all directed towards the awful inevitability of the plot. This is where Annilese Miskimmon really scores highly because she extracts every detail she can from this staging to make the very points Puccini wants to underline about this culture clash, plus a few, or maybe a lot, of her own. Certainly by stripping away the prettiness this plot can allow and replacing it with multiple points about class, race, politics and gender power she adds only strength. The Israeli music director Omer Meir Wellber shows exactly why he has gained his appointment at the Dresden State Opera with an unerring instinct for the high and low points of Puccini's great score. He clearly is a musician on the rise. The LPO are as fine as one could wish, though I could have asked the sound engineers to balance them a little more forward.

During Act One I was initially uneasy about the early 1950s costuming. In contrast the crassness of the Westerner's responses to a decorous Oriental culture was discomforting to watch - just what Puccini wanted to come across. However, by the end of Act Two it had all dropped into place and myself and my wife were sitting, tissues in hand, gripped by the awfulness of the story and the astonishing power of Puccini's music. So, this is yet another issue where you need to watch the whole opera before you fully grasp the opening scenes, and you need to watch it again! This is just fine at home but it might have been a little more problematic at Glyndebourne. The enthusiastic applause of the audience on October 14th 2016 indicates they had certainly 'got it' by the end. Make no mistake this is a knock-out marvellous performance. I would not pretend Omer Meir Welber and the London Philharmonic have the sheer power of Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic, though I am sure that the LPO would have sounded equally powerful had they been in the Sofiensaal with the great Decca team of 1974. A similar unfair comparison could be made between Karajan's Mirella Freni (Decca) or Barbirolli's Renata Scotto (Warner Classics) and Olga Busuioc. Ms Busuioc had to act as well as sing, the former pair had the benefit of retakes. My view is that any serious lover of this masterpiece should have at least these three recordings in their collections.

There is an interesting short bonus interview with Olga Busuioc. The recording slightly favours the stage over the pit but is excellent nonetheless. The filming is so right that one never notices it - high praise in this quarter!

Dave Billinge

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