Of all Puccini's major operas, the intimate tragedy of Madama Butterfly is least in need of elaborate staging and might therefore benefit most from the close scrutiny of film. The story is domestic, the setting Spartan, th... more »e incidental characters kept to a minimum. This 1974 version, however, demonstrates that Butterfly still needs a healthy injection of proscenium arch melodrama. Director Jean-Pierre Ponelle's production strives for realism but remains unfortunately studio-bound, having neither the benefit of location filming nor the heightened reality of an opera stage. The exterior is a perpetually fog-shrouded heath of indeterminate locale; the interior is cramped and unadorned. The setting is just too prosaic to contain the epic emotions of grand opera. Thankfully, the cast is a superb one, headed by Plácido Domingo's rakish Pinkerton and Mirella Freni's rubicund Butterfly. Their singing is incomparable, as is Herbert von Karajan's musical direction of the Vienna Philharmonic. The singers mime to prerecorded music, which is occasionally disconcerting since when film demands close-ups, opera provides broad gestures. Musically, this Butterfly is impeccable. Visually it adds nothing that could not be seen to better effect in a stage version. --Mark Walker« less
"This supposedly new release from Deutsche Grammophon is actually the same 1974 production previously released under the Decca label in 2001. That older title is still available at Amazon. This is a film version, not a stage production. It was directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and starred some of the finest performers available at the time. The great Herbert von Karajan conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna State Opera. It is without question a magnificient performance. Mirella Freni sings the role of Butterfly as few others can match. Placido Domingo is in equally fine form. Christa Ludwig is excellent as Suzuki. And yet the film as a whole doesn't really work. The trouble is that while Ponnelle tries to make this into a movie version of Butterfly, he neither has the resources nor the capability for doing so. The staging looks decidedly cheap, lacklustre and as some have commented, tacky. An effective movie version would benefit from realistic settings, a real house on a hill, with a sparkling Bay beneath. It could have done without some of the sensationalist/ridiculous set directions, like having Domingo jump out through the paper walls of the house, ostensibly for dramatic effect. This production could have worked (indeed would have been a triumphant success) if filmed purely as a stage based opera. However Ponnelle's final choice puts it neither here nor there. We have sets that look like they belong on stage (and not a very good stage at that), yet the performers are made to act as if they were in a movie. We get to see Placido Domingo chewing gum while he contemplates marrying Cio Cio San, presumably to show what a cad he is. And he continues to chew gum even while he's supposed to be singing. While this is still set in 19th century Japan, Domingo is seen to wear an obviously 20th century T-shirt. Domingo can act far better than what is shown here. As for the singing, the performances are all dubbed post-production. Lip synching ranges from poor to laughable. Because this is supposed to be a movie, and not a staged opera, we get the truly unbelieveable sight of these great performers singing without having to open their mouths - as we are supposed to be hearing their thoughts. Again, this could work provided the director is able to convince the audience that they are in a realistic film world. Unfortunately we are never transported into that world, we are all too aware that this is an opera sung on stage, albeit lip-synched.
The original Decca DVD sported a very soft, grainy transfer in fullscreen (pan & scan), littered with dirt specks and film nicks, looking very much like a poor quality VHS tape and this DG reissue looks no different. I can do without the DTS remix. This was recorded in stereo and the original release, in addition to a Dolby 5.0 surround, already had an excellent uncompressed Linear PCM audio track with quality equivalent to that of a good CD.
The original Decca release received mixed reviews. Aurally it is superb, one of the finest Butterflies ever. Visually it is close to a disaster. If you believe opera is only meant to be listened to, then this will be a top choice. If you believe opera should be an experience for both the eyes and ears, then pass this by. Even today, I still play the old Decca DVD, but only to listen to. I leave the TV off.
Note: It's not strictly correct to say that the singers were dubbed post-production. This movie has a curious history. It began as an audio-only studio recording with the exact same cast except that Luciano Pavarotti sang the role of Pinkerton. That recording was made in early 1974 at the Sofiensaal in Vienna. It received critical acclaim. The decision to make a movie using that original recording as a soundtrack came later that year. For the movie, they re-recorded Placido Domingo in the role as Pinkerton and spliced it into the earlier recording of the original cast. So the performers are in fact miming or lip-synching to the pre-recorded music while the film was being shot."
Oldest is still the Best!
operamaryc | DIAMOND BAR, CA United States | 07/31/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Believe this to be the oldest video/film of this opera of any quality. Both Freni and Domingo were in their 30's and wonderful together. All the costumes and singing excellent. I liked the directing as well. The sets simple and lovely with a flashback beginning which was very different at the time it was made. I have many of videos, film and stage, made in subsequent years and none of them can begin to compare with this version. Freni will make you cry and Domingo is the overweight, if attractive heel that Pinkerton is supposed to be. I've seen it many times in person with many different singers and this video always comes to mind in comparison. Buy this Butterfly and enjoy the wonderful music full of Puccini's sentimentality! This is also a great gift for a newbie."
Beautiful singing but questionable acting
David | North Carolina, USA | 12/29/2001
(3 out of 5 stars)
"The advent of opera on DVD has been a real boon to neophytes and aficionados of opera alike, as it presents the medium in a way that can only be superseded by a trip to the opera house itself. This Madama Butterfly is a film version of Puccini's beloved opera, and as such it takes certain liberties (obvious lip-synching, and singing when the actors are clearly not singing--the music represents thoughts "in their heads"). While all of this can be somewhat of a distraction, it is the poor acting, especially of Domingo, that hinders my being able to suspend reality while watching this production--in spite of some outstanding singing from Freni, Ludwig AND Domingo. Evidence of poor acting begin early on when the viewer actually witnesses Domingo's Pinkerton CHEWING GUM (!) over a stretch of several minutes--very strange indeed, and HIGHLY annoying. Was this a conscious decision or was it a gross oversight? My guess is the latter, for I find nothing artistic or symbolic in it; but it is such inexcusable distractions that ruin portions of this opera for me. It is as if Domingo is trying too hard to make us loath his character. This is most unfortunate, as Domingo sings AND acts brilliantly in Rosi's film version of Carmen, which he did about a decade after Butterfly. While Freni certainly does not look 15, few Butterflys do, and who cares when they sing so ravishingly as she? Freni gives a beautifully convincing performance, and her scenes are the most thrilling by far. The sets and backgrounds are acceptable although for a flim version, they fail to evoke an intense "Japanese" flavor the way those in Rosi's film version of Carmen do for Andalucía. In conclusion, opera on DVD places more demands on a production: to be truly outstanding, the VISUAL (acting/sets/backgrounds) component must be equal to the singing. This opera film fails in the first department, but is saved by the singing--which one can get on a CD!"
Impeccable singing, not remastered for DVD
onlyme1234 | netherlands | 05/19/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"To my very surprise this DVD is already for sale in the Netherlands where I bought it yesterday, 18th May 2005, whereas it is not yet released in the USA. That said, I already owned the earlier release and had hoped that they would have remastered the film for DVD. Alas, they did not, although they put the sound on DTS 5.0 which I am not yet able to listen to, which is the only difference compared to the DVD I already owned. (I think the sound might be great on DTS, but I do not know for now).
I think the singing on this DVD is superb and impeccable (I am a big fan of Domingo and Frenis pianissimos are the most beautiful you will ever hear). But the film looks as if somebody put it directly from VHS tape unto DVD (which is probably the case if I am to guess) which is a shame, seeing as the price I paid would have suggested that they did some work on it.
Five stars for the singing and three for the quality of the DVD (and shame on all the big companies for daring to sell us this kind of quality), makes for the four stars given."
Musically lovely, however, annoying production
V. Kaminsky | 09/22/2004
(3 out of 5 stars)
"This DVDis hampered by a distractingly poor, kitchy production. Although, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was a well liked director, especially during the 1970s when this was filmed, he almost ruins this DVD with outdated and misguided directing and editing. The sets are generally tolerable but the costumes and make-up are unattractive and borderline silly. Worst is the general directing and editing, which culminate at the end of the last act when a t-shirted Domingo jumps through a shoji screen to be freeze-framed in mid-air: a final example of Ponnelle's misguided attempts at drama.
Musically, the cast is superb. Domingo is in strong voice and an ideal Pinkerton, despite being a bit clumsy an actor under Ponnelle's direction. Freni fares much better as an actress, and is overall a lovely Butterfly, despite a few harsh notes. Karajan leads the orchestra wonderfully, rounding out an overall strong and compelling interpretation of Puccini's score.
Ultimately, the poor production leads one to enjoy listening to the DVD more than watching it. As such, until a better DVD of Butterfly is released, it may pay to just stick with audio recordings and forego the visuals which distract from the beauty of these fine musical artists' interpretations of one of opera's greatest scores. "