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Madame Butterfly
By Joel Kasow

Madame Butterfly, a film by Frédéric Mitterrand, based on the opera by Puccini, recently opened in Paris in an enormous burst of publicity largely confined to the musical press. It is difficult to imagine that the film will be a success as the producers clearly did not have any particular audience in mind. There is a total lack of cinematographic imagination so that we are left with what the French would call a "first-degree" approach, which as far as I'm concerned works well in the opera house; considering the lack of action in the original it is difficult to imagine why anyone thought a successful opera-film could be made.

The world outside France will no doubt find it strange that a cinematic unknown such as Mitterrand (the nephew of the late French president) could marshall sufficient resources to make such a film, but his notoriety in the local audio-visual scene evidently had investors flocking, including some of the television networks and also France-Telecom, always an enthusiastic supporter of operatic events in France. Mittérand himself says that it was the story of Butterfly which had always fascinated him, the music taking second place, and that he felt impelled to bring the work to the screen in as realistic a fashion as possible. The lack of Japanese elements in a film with realistic pretensions was also disturbing, with the harbor of Nagasaki consisting of a ramshackle wooden jetty and a few dilapidated fishing boats or else a shot of the ocean through a Japanese arch. (Shooting on location in Tunisia must have made some of this quite difficult.) And when so much money has been spent, why the use of patently artificial flowers for the flower duet?

The customary obeisance to Japanese cinema occurred with the treatment of the Bonze's arrival as a fantastic heavenly vision, while Cio-Cio-San's father also made a ritual appearance.

Musically things went better under the subtle baton of James Conlon, who inspired the Orchestre de Paris to heights long unfamiliar to them. A long search for a singer who could convincingly portray the title role on screen led to Ying Huang, a teen-aged student from the Shanghai Conservatory who worked intensively with Conlon for a long period before recording. The result is impressive even though she couldn't possibly attack the role onstage (just as Stratas performed Salomé for Böhm for a television recording) and there is no denying that she looks the part. Oriental passivity and restraint are very present in Huang's portrayal and contrast sharply with the dissipatedly brazen performance of Richard Troxell as Super-Cad. Richard Cowan's sympathetic Sharpless and the compassionate Suzuki of Ning Liang were worthy foils, but the elevation of Goro (Jing-Ma Fing) to a major figure, a real sleazeball in this concept, also created a new balance between the various characters.

Click on the captions below to see some more screenshots.

Goro showing his wares to Sharpless

Sharpless, Pinkerton, Suzuki and Butterfly during the wedding ceremony

Goro and Butterfly

Suzuki, Butterfly in Western dress and Sharpless (Act 2)



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