Looking at a (perhaps inadequate) sample of video recordings from La Scala I begin to come to the conclusion that there is a pretty strong pattern in what they do well, and not so well. 1800-1920 Italian classics with strong casts in visually attractive but not overly deep productions seems to be the sweet spot. Stray far from this and the wheels tend to come off. Fortunately this week I’ve seen two of the good ones recorded 30 years apart. A couple of days ago I posted a review of the recent I due Foscari and now I’ve jumped in the Tardis to watch a 1986 recording of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The similarities are striking.
Madama Butterfly is a problem. The music goes from the sublime to the appallingly kitsch and the plot doesn’t really bear thinking about. One wonders whether it should be performed at all but it is, often, too often. It seems that even thirty years ago the PtB in Milan were concerned enough about cultural appropriation to use a Japanese design and direction team for the piece and to cast Asian singers as Butterfly and Suzuki. Obviously this doesn’t really get at the problematic issues but it does make for an interesting visual experience.
Director Keita Asari and his set designer Ichiro Takada use a single set; a a traditional Japanese house set in a formal garden. Monochrome hooded figures act as servant/stagehands making movement of props and reconfiguration of the house screens pretty much seamless, even with a hint of noh drama to it. Back lit shadows are used during the preludes to each act to good effect. The costumes, by Hanae Mori, are period appropriate and don’t commit any obvious sartorial blunders. Within this framework the piece is played straight, except for a rather interesting final scene which draws more on Japanese theatrical convention. The acting is better than average for an Italian opera stage. Yasuko Hayashi, in the title role, and Giorgio Zancanaro, as Sharpless, are particularly good but Hak-Nam Kim’s Suzuki is also good and Peter Dvorsky as Pinkerton looks the part and plays it with some panache. Ernesto Gavazzi manages to be a creepily funny Goro without going too OTT. There’s even a rather charming cameo by a very young Anna Caterina Antonacci as Kate.
This was La Scala back in the days of the big budgets and they haven’t cut corners on the singers. All four of the principals were at the top of their game in 1986 and there is some really classy singing. Hayashi is sweet toned and never shrill. Un bel di is gorgeous. Dvorsky has genuine Italianate high notes with no sense of strain and Zancanaro shows why he was a go to Verdi baritone. His sense of the Italian style and his legato are exemplary. Kim rounds out a fine quartet. Lorin Maazel conducts though I’m not sure the La Scala orchestra actually need a conductor in this score. So, musically this is really good.
Considering this was filmed for television in the 1980s I think Derek Bailey does a nice job of the video direction. There are more closeups than in the best modern recordings but he does a good job of showing the overall stage “look”. I particularly liked his use of shots from fairly high in the house to capture the formal garden. The picture quality and sound are good for the period though the former is 4:3 aspect ratio and the latter stereo only. It’s quite watchable and listenable and way better than many recordings from this period.
There are no extras on the disk. The booklet has a track listing, a synopsis, some historical material about the opera and the provenance of this production plus bios of the principal singers and Maazel. Subtitle options are English, Italian, German, French and Spanish (today, no doubt, they would have added Japanese and Korean!).
In summary, a fine, more or less traditional, Madama Butterfly in a recording that has stood the years rather well.