Continuing the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle marathon we come to his 1974 film of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with Mirella Freni in the title role and a young Placido Domingo as Pinkerton. Musically this is the most satisfying of the Ponelle productions I’ve yet come across. Freni is superb. Radiant is not too strong a term, Domingo sings pretty much as well (we’ll come to points of dramatic interpretation later) and the supporting cast is flawless. There’s some serious luxury casting here with Christa Ludwig as a superb Suzuki. Robert Kerns is an excellent Sharpless and Michel Sénéchal equally good as Goro. Herbert von Karajan conducts. He tends to go for sheer beauty of sound rather than maximum drama but what beauty of sound! The soloists are wonderfully backed up by the Wirner Philharmoniker and the Staatsopernchor.
Dramatically it has some interesting features. In Act 1 it’s played fairly straight. Pinkerton comes off more as a grinning idiot than a cad. The fake Japannery is rather played up. The Goro has prominent buck teeth for example. The picky among my readers may ask whether more violations of USN uniform regulations have ever been perpetrated in one act of an opera as Pinkerton appears in public in various states of undress including a thoroughly anachronistic printed T shirt. He also manages a very 70s and definitely non regulation ‘tache in the third act.
It all gets a bit weirder just prior to the return of Pinkerton. First Butterfly acts out the scene where she describes the difference between US and Japanese divorce with two puppets; one of Mr. Punch and one of Uncle Sam. Then there’s a sort of dream sequence illustrating Butterfly’s thoughts that features her vision of her future life with Pinkerton. There are strange tableaux involving a range of erchetypes including Uncle Sam, There’s a Mount Fuji scene and as close to gratuitous shagging as a 1970s opera film can get. There is something slightly cruel, as well as sad, about all this. There’s also a sort of code being played with when Butterfly is dressed as an American and when in Japanese style that’s quite interesting. The final denouement is very well done. The suicide scene is horribly tense and realistic though the final shot a still of Pinkerton bursting out through the wall of Butterfly’s house is a bit campy though very much of a piece with the rest of the cinematography. Throughout Freni’s acting is superb and she makes a most convincing Butterfly.
The cinematography is quite untypical compared to other Ponnelle films that I have seen. Instead of using stagey sets and acting to the camera to emphasise “artificiality” here he uses cinematographic tricks. The film opens for instance with a sepia slow motion sequence of Pinkerton running across a hill side before colliding with Goro. It looks like a parody of the famous scene from the Olivier/De Havilland Wuthering Heights. We get lots more slo-mo, dissolves, superpositions and aerial shots throughout culminating in the final freeze frame shot of Pinkerton. The approach to lip synching is also slightly different. Interior monologues, for example, are not synched. In short, the camera is being worked harder than in later Ponnelle films but I don’t think it’s as effective as the route he takes in his later films; especially La Cenerentola and Cosi fan tutte.
Technically this film does rather show its age. It’s 4:3 format and rather soft focussed and grainy. In some ways this does help give a painterly feel but it’s not ideal. The sound though is excellent. It’s digitally reprocessed Dolby 5.0 and it does full justice to the music making. There’s also LPCM stereo. Subtitles are English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese. There is no bonus material.
I can’t imagine any Puccini lover disliking this disk despite the quirky cinematography. There’s also much to attract the Puccini skeptic for this is very fine music making and Freni is gorgeous, heart breaking and sings like an angel. And if there isn’t enough Ponnelle here to keep you occupied there’s yet more over at The Earworm.