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Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
16 May 2006

PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly

All is right and good in the world of opera as long as the Arena di Verona puts on vivid productions, in questionable taste, with impassioned singers pouring out the volume, in questionable taste, and the audience roaring its approval - in questionable taste.

Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly

Fiorenza Cedolins, Marcello Giordani, Juan Pons, Orchestra e Coro dell’Arena di Verona, Daniel Oren (cond.).


$32.98  Click to buy

Recently several vintage 1980s' stagings appeared on DVD; your reviewer heartily recommends a viewing of the Tosca with Eva Marton, Giacomo Aragall, and Ingvar Wixell. The energetic scenery-chewing here has a reckless, dentist-be-damned quality, as every scene is built into a rock face - including Scarpia's office! Just to see Wixell fly flamboyantly into the chapel, wearing a purple cape and pumps to match, makes the show a classic.

A Madama Butterfly from July 2004 becomes the latest to appear from this hallowed ground of over-the-top spectacle. None other than Franco Zeffirelli supplies the staging, with the innovation of an opening setting in the very busy streets of Nagasaki, before a rock face splits in two and the future home of the Pinkerton's slides into view. The pedestrians all seem to be meeting each other, as they wave delightedly and scramble around. Goro has the blueprints to the traditional Japanese house (?!?!) to show Pinkerton before they get around to climbing the hill. In yet another trademark Zeffirelli touch, quite a few handsome young men stroll languidly through both the openings of both acts one and two (this staging takes two intermissions). A younger male makes a memorable appearance behind the Pinkerton of Marcello Giordani during his first aria; the tyke not even trying to stifle a huge yawn. Overall, perhaps a little less busy stage business might have suited this intimate drama - but it is Verona!

For an ostensibly "traditional" staging, Zeffirelli makes the odd decision to have Butterfly make her entrance to her future home from its interior! Yes, she and her attendees appear behind the sliding doors and advance toward the waiting Pinkerton and Sharpless. Our Cho-cho-san (as the subtitles spell it, and as actually matches most romanizations of that sound in Japanese), Fiorenza Cedolins, goes for the high ending - it is Verona, after all - and holds it for such a long time that the Verona audience breaks out into wild, noisy approval. As recorded, the note could have used just a tiny boost up into the pitch, but it makes an exciting impression anyway.

The sound throughout features a slight echo to the most strenuous exertions of the singers, and one suspects an amplification system to deal with the large Verona arena. Even so, none of the singers (including the Sharpless of Juan Pons) provides much evidence of an interest in softer singing, with Cedolins in particular becoming quite wearing on the ears with her mostly unmodulated volume. She also lacks fragility in her portrayal, though she really convinces in some of Butterfly's outbursts at Suzuki in act two - the servant might well have fled for her life at the next assault. Though she has some impressive moments, ultimately Cedolins's Butterfly is more an assault on the ears than on the heart.

Giordani makes a tall, attractive Pinkerton, although he appears to have green highlights in his hair. Is that supposed to make him seem blond, to explain the golden-haired tyke who appears as his son later? Or is Zeffirelli suggesting that as a sailor, he has algae growing in his hair? Only Franco knows. Most importantly, Giordani (who will sing this role for the opening of the Met's 2007 season) offers some handsome singing, although he gets a little dry at the end of the love duet. Pons's stage deportment suggests that Sharpless is more peeved at being drawn into this drama than anything else, but he is in good voice.

Zeffirelli's most amazing conception occurs during the Humming chorus, when four ghostly wraiths appear in flowing, dark-colored shifts to offer an interpretive dance. They then take their place on rock ledges around Butterfly's house to watch the tragedy unfold. When Butterfly finally takes out her father's sword, these spectral figures join her in her fatal collapse. Perhaps the dramatic impact would be greater if they didn't have what appear to be oversized chicken bones poking through their messy gray hair. In fact, they seem to have wandered on stage from a production of Macbeth.

Daniel Oren, not a conductor done any favors by the director's predilection for close-ups, leads a reading of the score as exuberant, and as unsubtle, as the production. He even allows a most grating break in the music before the flower duet. But then again, fighting the Verona audience's urge to reward loud singing at musical climaxes might well be a losing battle.

Does the review sound negative? It shouldn't necessarily - if one knows the Verona style, this DVD makes for a most entertaining diversion. Puccini's masterpiece is indestructible, it seems - and this DVD, if nothing else, offers ample proof of that.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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