This is Not Your Grandmother's 'Butterfly'
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 12/12/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This 'Madama Butterfly' was a 2003 production at the Netherlands Opera and was staged in his inimitable style by Robert Wilson, who achieved fame many years ago with his and Philip Glass's 'Einstein on the Beech.' The style he adopts for this production is extremely stylized, hieratic. At times it looks almost Egyptian with stylized hand gestures and slow almost Noh-like gestures. Wilson, in an interview that is an extra on the first disc of this 2DVD set, says that he chose this style because he feels that cluttered, busy productions of opera interfere with the music. (He mentions Zeffirelli in this context.) And I must say that after seeing this production I would have to agree with him. Because there is so little going on onstage one can indeed pay deeper attention to the music qua music. This is not to say that the stage action is boring. Indeed, it is not; it is mesmerizing, I found. But very often what is going on onstage has little, seemingly, to do with what is going on in the narrative of the opera. Sets are extremely simple -- low vistas, with ever-changing lighting on the flat background. The only prop is a stylized chair that is moved on and off the stage as needed. Costumes are almost Greek in their simplicity.
But no production of any opera is worth anything if the musical presentation is weak. Thank goodness, that is not the case here. This is a strong cast without a single weak link, even though I had only heard of one of the singers ever before (Richard Stilwell as Sharpless). Cheryl Barker, the Butterfly, is a strikingly handsome woman who has an equally commanding voice. She is a good actress and although she talks in the extra documentary about how hard it was to learn Wilson's stage directions, particularly the stylized gestures that were sometimes against the music, she gives a convincing performance. Martin Thompson, a tenor with a big yet lyrical voice, is a fine Pinkerton; and you just love to hate him for being such an ugly American. Catherine Keen's velvety contralto was put to good use in her portrayal of Suzuki. Stilwell, whom I saw many years ago as Billy Budd, has aged well and still has a vibrant baritone, somewhat heavier than it once was. He makes an admirable Sharpless both musically and dramatically. Special mention must be made of Peter Blanchet as Goro. He is not just the funny little marriage broker, but comes across as a cynical villain.
Edo de Waart, the venerable Dutch conductor, says in the documentary that this is his first time ever to conduct a Puccini opera. You wouldn't know it; he paces the score expertly and draws lovely playing from the Netherlands Philharmonic in the pit, although there are a few raucous moments in some of the more dramatic brass-laden passages. Wilson's lighting design is marvelous, seamless, and beautifully planned. Sound is in plain vanilla stereo but is clear and true.
This is not a version of Butterfly for a traditionalist, nor should it be one's only DVD version. But it is powerful dramatically and musically satisfying.
TT=169 minutes; LPCM Stereo; Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch; Extras: Illustrated synopsis, cast gallery, Introduction to the opera featuring Wilson, de Waart and members of the cast
"Madama Butterfly, the Oratorio"
Mr John Haueisen | WORTHINGTON, OHIO United States | 03/13/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)
"A reviewer has said that this is not your grandmother's Butterfly. I agree, and it disappointed me.
Turns out, it's "Madama Butterfly, the Oratorio." Singers stand stiffly, usually facing the audience instead of singing passionately to each other. Rarely do they even touch each other.
There is little or no scenery.
Costumes are rather "one-size-fits-all," very plain and colorless, and could easily have been leftovers from Patrice Chereau's production of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung.
Yes, technically the singing is nearly perfect. But it is sterile, with few if any displays of affection or emotion.
Opera was meant to be more than just the singing. It should be a splendidly-staged production that makes it easier for us to step into the intended period or atmosphere.
If all you care about is the music, yes, there is beautiful singing, but the production is more like an oratorio with singers just standing there. I just don't want you to get burned, if you expect to see a production of the Butterfly we have all come to love.
An arresting Butterfly!
J. Anderson | Monterey, CA USA | 11/09/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"A mesmerizing, gorgeous Butterfly to watch! The actors' movements are stylized but never elaborately so, genuinely meaningful lighting and a stage concept that's spare beyond spare but intensely inviting. For me, one viewing wasnt sufficient, and a repeated look yielded even more reasons for affection for this production. This is one of a few non-traditional stagings of any opera that actually stands up and says something worthwhile. Butterfly is an opera where the score in its divine pungency tends to define everything. Despite the coruscating love story, it's Puccini's bona fide revolutionary score that leaves us shattered. What music! and Edo de Waart does a scrupulous job interpreting with the Amsterdam orchestra. Balances between singers and orchestra are always beautifully drawn. Cheryl Barker's singing is inconsistent but occasionally affecting, especially from the middle of Act 2 forward. Before she relaxes and warms, her singing exhibits a perceptible lack of trust in her instrument, causing her to keep from leaning fully against the singing action, a fault more of vocal technique than of artistic resolve. She seems to repair a lot of that as the piece progresses. There's an odd bit of momentary vocal barking in the scene with the Consul at the beginning of Act 2 that strikes me more as ill-chosen stylized vocal gesture than anything else. Tenor Martin Thompson is a fine Pinkerton - Addio fiorito asil is just about everything you could hope for. Catherine Keen is sumptuous as Suzuki - some standout singing there! The Humming Chorus is a visual meditation of steeply sad stillness, only Cio-Cio-San's son "Pain" dances upstage, away from the dread future to come. My dvd version offers a surround sound option in addition to stereo. Even if you're a traditionalist when it comes to Butterfly, there's a worthwhile adventure to be had in a film this beautifully conceived and delivered.
The tragic essence of "Butterfly"
Robert Spofford | San Rafael, CA USA | 05/27/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"In all of opera, "Butterfly" may be the purest classical tragedy: Just one set; no extraneous characters or sub-plots (Puccini trashed them all after the disastrous first production); a central character whose doom is clear and certain before she even appears onstage.
Robert Wilson's controversial staging cuts right to the core of this identity. It feels more like "Medea" in an ancient amphitheater than a night at the Met. And in this case, less truly is more. By stripping away the "reality" of traditional staging, Wilson lets us hear the sublime music and listen to the libretto, with all its rich ironies, as we never have before.
But, Wilson has also has a clear, specific dramatic point of view. Butterfly is presented as a very strong character, not the victim we sometimes see. At the end, she is in total control, and Wilson's staging of her death makes it clear that she is also killing the possibility of any love, ever, between her son and the hapless Pinkerton. (Again, much more Medea than Mimi.)
No, this probably isn't the right "Butterfly" for one's introduction to the opera. But for someone looking for new insights, it's fabulous.
The musical performances are all first-rate. The DTS sound track is stunning, And the widescreen video is the only "Butterfly" DVD I've seen that can hold its own on a good home theater system."