Guess what? You probably already know Madame Butterfly and don't even realize it. Are you familiar with Miss Saigon, the massive Broadway hit centering on a soldier and his Vietnamese lover? That's Madame Butterfly. How about the aria "Un bel di vedremo?" You know, the song featured in such films as Fatal Attraction (when Alex is sitting on the floor turning the lamp on and off), Hopscotch, and Natural Born Killers? Heck, former Sex Pistol Svengali Malcolm McLaren even used it for a hit song back in 1984, while The Simpsons employed it as the backing for Barney Gumble's award winning short Pukahontas ("Don't cry for me...I'm already dead."). So you know Madame Butterfly, you just don't 'know' it. Now, Unitel Classica and the Sferisterio Opera Festival Macerata want to change all that. Using an unusual staging and the standard Puccini mastery, they take the tale and turn it into a tour de force of character, emotion, and above all, brilliant singing.
Benjamin Franklin "B.F." Pinkerton is a Lieutenant in the United States Navy. In the Japan of 1904, he has just agreed to an arranged month-by-month marriage (overall term, 999 years) with a 15 year old girl named Cio-Cio San. Infatuated with her innocence and beauty, he is not sure the agreement will last more than the first 30 days - or the wedding night. She, on the other hand, is the happiest young woman in all the country. She even renounces her religion and agrees to convert to Pinkerton's. This causes her family much shame. Three years later, Cio-Cio San has been abandoned by her American husband, Even though he has taken care of all her financial needs, he heart still misses him. Most of all, she now has a small child that Pinkerton knows nothing about, and Cio-Cio will not allow anyone to write to him and tell him. She eventually agrees to let Pinkerton know, which causes him to return. Sadly, things have changed drastically, causing Cio-Cio San to rethink her own life.
It's the dilemma of every antiquated artform - how to make it resonate beyond those already devoted to and familiar with it. It's the problem facing ballet, poetry, and in a more minor key, the standard visual medium museum set. Opera, at one time viewed as a rich man's folly, has made great strides toward becoming a recognizable and embraced form of expression. Pieces such as La Boheme have gotten the revisionist treatment (Rent) while arias from such famous works as Turnadot and La Traviatta have been used to sell everything from perfume to kitchen cleaners. We've slowly embrace the big bravura moments of lyrical emotion and view the song snippets we hear as the gold leaf pop of a culture past. Unfortunately, this is not what opera is about. It's actually more like a symphony with a story, a nonstop stream of music meant to evoke both individual moments and an overall tone and theme. A nice contemporary allusion is the concept album in rock and roll. Not every tune is a masterpiece, but the whole package projects an idea or a theme that the author thought was important.
In Puccini's case, the isolation of Japan and the invasion of its perceived 'backwards' ways by the West make up the majority of Butterfly's conceits. We get the thoughtless American who comes in, gets his rocks off, and then leaves his "wife" to more or less fend for herself. When he shows back up with a real spouse in tow, the reference is obvious - Cio-Cio San was just a foreign plaything. Real men marry within their class...and culture. Similarly, the idea that our heroine would toss aside her own religion for that of Pinkerton's, causing her family an undue amount of distress, underlines the bigger issues here. Because of her age - though she is almost always played by a diva dozens of years older - Cio-Cio's wide eyed innocence must be met with tragedy. Similarly, Pinkerton's hubris, his 'love 'em and leave 'em' attitude is meant to be part of the sorrow, not the source. We see his reactions, his often heartless disdain for his Asian bride and bet he will get a comeuppance. The eventual denouement is really not that satisfying.
Using a massive sports arena and a huge sprawling set, director Pier Luigi Pizzi manages to find a logistical way of illustrating the opera's override themes. The increasing isolation of Cio-Cio San is mirrored expertly by the massive backdrop, a setting which suggests a small flower in a lonely, remote field. It also works well for Pinkerton, since it allows his callous attitude and responses to feel like those of one lone man, not many. As for the casting, current PC pundits may not like the lack of actual Asians in the cast, but this is opera, and it doesn't play by strict social mandates. As Cio-Cio San, Raffaella Angeletti is magnificent. She handles the difficult role with equal vocal and physical panache. Granted, she's about as Japanese as lasagna, but her skills more than sell the part. Pinkerton, portrayed by Massimiliano Pisapia is also excellent, if a tad "Mediterranean" looking to be a convincing turn of the century American. Since no one is really looking for racial authenticity, it's the voice that matter, and the cast completely acquit themselves...and then some. Indeed, this is one of the best stagings of this operatic standard ever. It offers all the musical highpoints, with the emotional gravitas most productions miss.
With a big set comes big problems. The need to keep everything lit without overdoing the brightness - especially for a piece predominantly offered in blacks, whites, and grays - gives the 1080i, 1.78:1 widescreen image a bit of a problem. There are moments that seem dim, or inadvertently dark, and there is a significant lack of detail where such elements should actually thrive. The Blu-ray format also finds the flaws and the sprawling set is hard to capture clearly in a single shot. Instead, we get wayward camera movements and some sloppy compositions. Still, the overall look is clean and clear, with a nice balance between near and far. But it's far from perfect.
As with other, similarly styled releases, skip the PCM Stereo. It doesn't do the show or the sprawling space justice. Instead, dive right into the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and prepare to be wowed. It's incredible. Granted, thanks to the format update, the limits of the arena are accented. After all, you can't see Madame Butterfly in a sports stadium setting and not be aware of some location issues. The multichannel offering puts you right in the middle of the massive undertaking and its immersive qualities are beyond compare.
None, except for an insert booklet with a brief synopsis of the storylines and 'songs.'
Newcomers to any skill set or craft, be it painting or sculpture or hip-hop are always inundated with "the basics," the Beginner's Guide, so to speak, of the specific aesthetic. In opera, Madame Butterfly is one of the solid gold standards. While its structure may seem arcane, the story and sonic expression of same are not. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, this is one of the best renditions of this benchmark ever. Some may prefer their arias is carefully marketed Madison Avenue snippets but by embracing the whole, one comes to learn where the parts are important. In the case of "Un bel di vedremo," it's only part of Butterfly's tale of woe. You know some of the story. Here's your chance to experience it all.