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Puccini: Madama Butterfly


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Amazon.com: 55 reviews
66 of 69 people found the following review helpful
Puppets? What puppets? June 5 2011
By Cy Reese - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
Since I generally prefer traditional productions, I was somewhat skeptical as I sat down to watch and hear Anthony Minghella's production of the most performed opera in the Unites States, and perhaps the world - Madama Butterfly. Adding to my concern and curiosity was the advertised use of puppetry in this Metropolitan Opera HD series event. Let me come right to the point in this critique: this opera pulls you in! I was totally mesmerized and after three beautiful hours, felt like I should feel after hearing and viewing an opera. My reaction is not surprising when I review the different facets of this production:
(1) THE SETS: yes, they are minimalist, but, when you think about it, this is one opera which doesn't really need elaborate sets; most of the drama occurs inside a Japanese house, which does indeed make use of sliding screens. The use of these screens in this production was actually quite clever and did reinforce the notion that the setting is Japan.
(2) COSTUMES: credited to Han Feng; just a glorious display of color. Easily, the best costuming I've seen in any production of this opera, at least, those available on DVD.
(3) THE MUSIC: Maestro Patrick Summers conducts a flawless performance of the Met's Orchestra; the music never overpowers the singers and yet, reaches our ears with the power to move us as the composer intended. Puccini would have applauded.
(4) THE SINGERS: Let's begin with the title role. Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) can be compared with that of Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet". Ideally, one would cast a mid-teen young lady, and yet, to date, there has never been a young female actress/singer capable of expressing all the emotions that their character calls for. In the PAST world of opera, one had to be content with a soprano up to the demands of a role such as Madama Butterfly, that calls for an almost continuous stage presence from the middle of the first act until the end of the third and final act. Historically, singing ability was the criterion, making factors such as age and appearance, irrelevant. (Examples: a grossly overweight Pavarotti as a "handsome" Radames in Aida; a sixty-year old Sutherland as "the Daughter" of the Regiment in an Australian Opera production.) BUT, in TODAY'S world, where operatic productions are being filmed as well as recorded - where the visual aspects of a production will be important to the sale of DVDs and Blu Ray discs - singers are being groomed who cannot only sing but who are believable as the characters they represent. Thinks of handsome tenors such as Florez, Villazon and Kaufmann; beautiful sopranos like Netrebko, attractive mezzos like Garanca and baritones like Keenlyside, etc. I submit that Patricia Racette strikes a good balance between youth and experience and is here a very convincing Butterfly. I do not agree with those reviewers who found some faults with her voice; I, for one, did not detect any, and indeed, of the seven DVDs I own of this opera, her death scene is the best both vocally and dramatically.
All of the principal singers were in good form the day they recorded this production. Tenor Marcello Giordani, whose rendition of "Nessun Dorma" in the Met's last production of "Turandot", compared with Pavarotti's, impresses me here with his clarity of tone and ability to portray Pinkerton, not as a villain but as a flawed human being who does not realize the tragic consequences of his amorous affair with his Japanese bride. Dwayne Croft, a veteran of the Met, as Sharpless, is a good example of why baritones today are being afforded the prominence once reserved to their tenor colleagues. As Suzuki, Maria Zifchak, another Met stalwart, is able to bring out all the nuances in her character; she is not just Butterfly's servant, but companion in suffering. I was particularly impressed by her actually coming to tears when she is about to inform her mistress of Pinkerton's new wife.
(5) THE USE OF PUPPETS: Easily, this is the most controversial aspect of this production. It shouldn't be. A cardinal rule in criticism is that one shouldn't condemn a work one hasn't read, seen or heard. That rule applies here. Even though several puppets were employed in this production (several servants and one of Butterfly in a ballet scene), the one puppet who manages to captivate the audience is Butterfly's young son. Of all the child actors who have been cast in this part, THIS PUPPET IS THE FINEST OF THEM ALL! No three-year old would be capable of portraying awe, happiness, wonderment, sadness, and affection in the way that this three-foot tall "artificial child" has managed to do it. Great credit, of course, must be given to his three black-clad handlers, but after a while, they seem to disappear in the viewer's eye and mind. Please do not let the idea of puppets deter you from experiencing this magnificent production. You will be captivated by their use and might just forget that they are in the production.
(6) BUTTERFLY'S DEATH SCENE: has been described by other reviewers. Such a simple idea: use red cloth to symbolize blood. But add light effects and I could have sworn that the entire stage was covered with Cio-Cio-San's blood. Very effective, and coupled with Puccini's dramatic music, a powerful ending.
53 of 58 people found the following review helpful
A melting pot of traditional theaters and a mixed bag of voices. Dec 21 2010
By Jaydoggy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD
Anthony Minghella's new staging of Madama Butterfly is a fascinating mix of traditional theater from both Europe and Japan. This new production seems to have finally been released on DVD due to its online popularity and requests. This is the third production of a Madama Butterfly I've seen (I'm still pretty new to opera), and currently stands at my favorite.

The role of Butterfly is rather infamous; it's one of the most difficult roles both on a physical and psychological level (even the great Leontyne Price said she found the tragic role almost too painful to continue). The physical element requires a much more mature voice and powerful voice, thus nearly all people who play the role will have to be older than a 16-year-old girl. Racette may not be 16, but her body language, costume and makeup certainly make her look young, naive, and innocent. Though she doesn't look Japanese, this is definitely not the first opera I've seen in which a particular ethnicity is not matched by the performer (others include Otello, Turandot, or Atilla). Turn on the suspension of disbelief.

Her acting, body language and emotion were all there, but as another reviewer pointed out, her voice was not entirely there. As she went higher, her vibrato got too wide and even wobbly to the point that the center note was not as distinguishable. I found Act I to be the best part while Act II (sadly including Un bel di) to be the most wobbly and thin. Though it was a bit of a let-down, I was still fully immersed in the story and could see (and hear as the case may be) past the issues. Act III improved from Act II, though yes still the top notes wobbled. All in all though, I cannot say I was disappointed; it still shook me up.

Marcello Giordani's Pinkerton had a different sound and interpretation as others before him. It appears his Pinkerton is not necessarily cold or evil, but rather he's totally ignorant of exactly how terrible a thing he's doing. Giordani's interpretation has Pinkerton entering as a man filled with pride, thinking his culture is simply better while taking advantage of another culture guilt-free. He only suddenly feels guilt when he realizes he has his son, in which case he almost goes in for self-pity. Having interacted with people with similar vain self-pity issue, I found this interpretation very believable. It's different, but still a psychologically fascinating and realistic approach. Like Racette, his upper register was a disappointment. His voice was full, but the sound itself didn't seem to match his current emotion; the first act he sounded tragic too soon, which made his guilt and self-pity in Act III a little less powerful. Still, his acting and performance was enough to make him believable and conniving as any Pinkerton.

Dwayne Croft's Sharpless was probably the best I've seen and heard. Voice, face, emotion, acting, all of it was there. He's the only voice of reason, and he really shows his character as feeling a deep guilt for not speaking up or doing more to prevent the tragedy from happening. Maria Zifchak's Suzuki was the only real let-down for me. I don't know enough of her singing to know whether this is normal or just a bad day, but her voice seemed to have a lot of problems centering on a note. Though her character is a pessimist, I found her acting a little over-the-top and hard to believe. Still, her character still provides a good contrast to the naivety of Butterfly which Racette displays very well.

The use of puppets in this production seemed to stir a lot of controversy, especially with the role of Dolore (Butterfly and Pinkerton's son). I simply am confused with the controversy, perhaps I'm missing something because it is not in the least bit tasteless. The suspension of disbelief allows us to accept that Japanese and American people are singing back and forth to each other in Italian. Further, the portrayal of Japan in this opera (and the original short story and other adaptations of the tale) has a warped vision of Japan. The fact that the leading character has "san" at the end as an actual part of her name (rather than the fact that it's a title, thus not part of her name) shows some ignorance. If the suspension of disbelief allows this, then it can allow us to accept that the puppet is the boy. Perhaps the controversy was because of the West's image of puppetry. In Japan, puppet theater is essential, and it was done here accurately; three people shrouded in black control the puppet.

Traditionally in puppet theater the whole show is puppets rather than a single character. But I found the juxtaposition really fascinating and above all: tasteful. I've seen a lot of obnoxious regietheater productions (all of which claim they're trying to bring in a new audience, yet I'm in this new audience and they confuse me more than anything. Of course when I say that, they immediately change my position and accuse me of conservative snobbery! Cognitive dissonance in the artistic world). Nothing was over-the-top in this production with the one exception being the end of Act I (the "long duet" as it seems to be referred to) where Pinkerton and Butterfly were surrounded by floating, dancing lanterns. The addition of short mimed moments were also nice touches. It begins with a woman dancing with a pair of fans to pure silence on an empty, red stage. It immediately immerses you in in this foreign world.

All in all, I found this to be an astounding performance. Madama Butterfly is not a personal favorite show of mine (perhaps I am biased because I studied a lot of its history and art). Incidents similar to the events in Madama Butterfly though did happen, and certainly show a shameful moment in the West's History. The visually stunning production with an accurate mix of traditional theater from both a Western perspective (proper costumes and acting) and Eastern one (proper costumes, puppet theater, mime/gestures, and certain uses of props) make this a unique treat to watch. The voices were a let-down at times, but it didn't stop me from enjoying it by any means.

I would highly recommend this DVD to anyone. It must be entered with a bit of background information on Puppet Theater, but that could be something as simple as a search for a video on Youtube. If the idea is foreign to you, give it a try. Traditional Japanese Theater has some fascinating elements, and perhaps this interesting production will spark some more interest in it. The performance was believable nearly the entire time, and the singing throughout was mostly perfect. There may have been rough patches, but it definitely didn't ruin it for me.
35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Minghella's Marvelous Met Butterfly Jan. 12 2011
By G P Padillo - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD
When I first read about Minghella's production I had serious doubts, but everyone I knew (well, almost) who saw it in London, then here, had nothing but raves. I still had doubts going in, but was instantly won over by every element of it. The lighting, costumes, unit set and the never less than startling use of color is breathtaking.

Racette's Butterfly is one of the finest I've encountered and here she is positively shattering. (Special kudos go to her for rescuing this performance at the last minute, coming in from Washington, DC where she was in final rehearsals for "Peter Grimes.") Yes, she can flat a little, or start a note less than dead center of pitch, but in this performance there is almost none of that. Several moments are, in fact, so vocally perfect I find myself completely overwhelmed; most notably "Che tua madre" and the end of her great narration before the Cherry Blossom duet. In the latter Racette holds the final note for near eternity, the voice growing in a crescendo that nearly covered the orchestra (I've never heard this from her before) and as she let go of the note, she collapsed, fainting to the floor (in an earlier performance, the house erupted into a huge ovation).

Giordani is having a good day, as well, and always believable as Pinkerton. In Minghella's stunning setting he and Racette exploit two violently clashing cultures: Butterfly all delicate movement, darting and hiding all over the stage - behind lanterns, in the shadows, etc. creating a shy, excitable child while Pinkerton, barely controlling his passion, hunted her, grabbing her passionately as she jumps into his arms, then catching and holding her aloft, removing her outer garments, etc. Two vastly different worlds colliding and trapped perfectly in Puccini's inescapable web. If there is a more erotically charged romantic duet in all of opera than Butterfly & Pinkerton's, I don't know it

The Puppet Sorrow. I'd adopt him if I could (but would go broke trying to feed and clothe his handlers!) Racette's interactions with him were infinitely more touching than I've seen with any "real" child, lending a certain heightened hyper-realism I've not experienced before. (During intermission Racette, (unaware the camera was on her) prepares for the final act, climbing down onto the floor and addressing him "Okay, Baby . . . sleepytime, baby!" as she placed his head onto her lap positioning herself for curtain's rise. (At the HD presentation the entire theatre cracked up here and earlier when Giordani carried her offstage, Racette finally breaking character chortled "Thanks for carrying me ass first towards the camera, Marcello!")

Racette is a throwback to the style of singing of generations ago, singers willing to cross the line and "become" the character, using "old school diva tricks" like whispering, muttering, crying, giggling, groaning - all manner of "extramusical" devices which were pretty much all but eliminated from opera since the late 70's.

Dwyane Croft has grown to become perhaps the finest Sharpless in my experience. Gorgeous of voice, and offering a richly nuanced portrayal, evoking a worldly, but sympathetic masculinity while remaining impotent - an outsider who understands but is unable to prevent the tragedy he finds himself a part of.

Even the way the bows are presented is theatrical, and when the stage is bare, Cio Cio San appears at the top of the set an absolute ROAR went up from the house - and as she slowly made her way down to the footlights almost the entire house stood cheering. Breathtaking moment and Racette was visibly moved by the response.

This is a unique and special Butterfly and I'm thrilled to see it being released on DVD where it should do well.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
One of the best opera videos you can get Jan. 27 2011
By figaro - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD
This is one of those opera videos that works on all levels, and because it is very hard to achieve that with this particular opera, and also because this is a very touching piece when delivered well as it is here, I highly recommend the video.

Butterfly is supposed to be small but her voice must be largish, so it's always a bit of a trick to get this opera to both look and sound right. Patricia Racette is wonderful as Butterfly. Her voice is easy to hear with a nice squillo - she never sounds pushed or fatigued all the way to the end. She is strong throughout all her registers. She looks small enough and her costumes help in adding a small look to her. The Suzuki, Maria Zifchak, is wonderful. Giordani as Pinkerton is in good voice, and he strikes a very handsome officer. Croft is in good enough voice to execute Sharpless without problem.

The puppets are wonderful. You generally have a real little boy playing the child and he's usually a bit out of place because there is quite a bit of stage-time but nothing for him to do as he is never a trained actor. But these skilled puppeteers have the little boy moving about displaying emotions by the movement of the puppet's body that is completely enchanting, and the child's emotions add rather than detract from the drama.

The second puppet is a representation of Butterfly dancing with a real human dancer representing Pinkerton in a short ballet. (Yes, the puppets are so charming, they can make a ballet in an opera seem too short. Hopefully, the 'Butterfly' puppet will get larger roles as her career blossoms. ;0) )

The sets are nice and so are the costumes. Butterfly and Pinkerton could not be made to look better. The costumes completely compliment all the main singers. It's just a great show, but be prepared to shed a tear or two.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Butterfly for misinformed tourist Aug. 14 2011
By Andres Santos Jr. - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Blu-ray
I am very disappointed with this Butterfly, one of my most cherished operas.
The acting and direction are so primitive that is almost amateur in the worst ways... not a single new idea. Near this production the Metropolitan Opera Minghella's oeuvre is a masterwork. Why put this on Blu-ray at full price? The taping has great resolution, worst for the singers, whose flaws is 1080i HD definition visible! The sound has the most serious problem in a show so full of problems. All the principals use microphones, but the choir is almost mute, in a balance far far distant... The huge space makes the singers, mainly Butterfly looking for the conductor aid and support in the most poignant moments.
Do not waste your money, the image is beautiful, and stop! Very few for this wich is the most theatrical and romantic opera of all, Puccini's own favorite.
If you are a BIG Butterfly fan like myself try the Met ProductionPuccini: Madama Butterfly, or the marvelous and insuperable old Arena di Verona with Kabaiwanska Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly / Kaibaivanska, Antinori, Jankovic, Saccomani, Ferrara (Arena di Verona), or the Scala...Madama Butterfly or any other . Please just forget this 2 hours -expensive- garbage.


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