“She’s like a porcelain doll. She sets me on fire.”
Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly” has been the source of at least eight films during the past century. Most of the efforts were filmizations of the Madame Butterfly story rather than presentations of the opera. Mary Pickford tried her hand in a 1915 silent version while a young Cary Grant played alongside Sylvia Sidney in an early sound (1932) retelling. The most recent attempt came in 1995 in the form of a French/German/British co-production that claimed a cinematic first with its use of Asian actors playing the Asian parts and Western actors playing the Western parts. Columbia has now released the film on DVD, publicizing it as “Martin Scorsese Presents a Sony Classical Film.” I presume that simply means he endorses the film; he didn’t have anything to do with its production.
While he is stationed in Japan near Nagasaki in 1904, American Lieutenant Pinkerton takes the young 15-year old Cio-Cio San as his bride. Pinkerton sees the marriage as merely a convenience, with no intention of ever taking Cio-Cio home to the United States. Cio-Cio, the Madame Butterfly of the title, takes the arrangement seriously and gives up her family for the marriage. Pinkerton then leaves, promising to return when the robins are nesting, but three years pass without any sign of him. Meanwhile, Madame Butterfly has borne their son. Finally, a ship arrives in the harbour and Cio-Cio is sure that Pinkerton is on it. She is soon proved correct, but unfortunately, Pinkerton is only interested in taking his son away to live in America with him and his new American wife.
Spoiler Alert!!! Madame Butterfly tells a story that is certainly sad, but ultimately more annoying than anything else. To be gentle about it, Lieutenant Pinkerton is simply a jerk whom you’d like to see thoroughly dusted off for his brutal treatment of Cio-Cio. To see him return and flaunt his new wife before the grief-stricken Cio-Cio and then shed crocodile tears when he sees the results of his actions is just too much to accept. Not much better is the American Consul who acts as a messenger for Pinkerton and could have warned Cio-Cio of what was to come much earlier, thus saving her years of grief. That Pinkerton is allowed to take his son while Cio-Cio pays the ultimate price just makes you angry and leaves a bad taste in the mouth when the film is over.
Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is generally regarded as one of the best of the later operas. The story line is certainly slight, however, and the performances have to be superb to sustain it for two and a quarter hours. That is not the case in this filmed version. Ying Huang is merely adequate as Cio-Cio. She certainly tries to give the role some conviction, but one senses that she lacks the singing experience to provide the depth and richness of tone and feeling that the role requires. Richard Traxell is a young American tenor who sings well enough, but can’t act. He seems to have two expressions only — one of a sort of smirk that he uses in the first act, and the other a shallow grimace that’s supposed to convey anguish in the final act. The best work actually comes from the supporting roles. Richard Cowan (who reminded me of a youngish Ward Bond) is probably the best thing in the film as he gives a fine performance as the Consul. Ning Liang provides a very expressive interpretation of the maid, Suzuki.
On the technical side, this film has problems too. When you film an opera, one of the things you expect is to find the story opened up from the claustrophobic feel that stage-bound productions usually have. Director Frédéric Mitterand fails to do this sufficiently. We still feel quite confined to Madame Butterfly’s home virtually throughout the film and occasional shots of the bay with the mountains surrounding it just look like the paintings they’d be in a stage production. Then, there’s the image of Cio-Cio’s uncle appearing in the sky in the first act. It’s completely unconvincing and amateurish in this age of special effects. We also get an interesting-looking sequence of Japanese newsreel footage at one stage, but the point of including it is unclear. There are examples of lip-synching that is poorly matched to the music so that at times it’s distracting. Finally, there’s the matter of what Cio-Cio and her maid and son manage to live on for three years when she’s been deserted by her husband, disowned by her family, and has no job.
Columbia presents Madame Butterfly in a two-layer 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that really looks very nice. The image is clear and richly detailed. Colours are quite vibrant and blacks are deep and velvety. There is the occasional speckle, but nothing distracting of that sort. On the other hand, this fine look of the film is let down somewhat by noticeable edge enhancement around faces whenever they are shot against the sky as background. It’s far from the worst case I’ve seen, but given that the image otherwise looks so good, its presence is unfortunate and unnecessary. Columbia has been a bit stingy with the scene selections, only allowing for 16 in the course of the 135 minutes.
The audio features a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix in Italian that provides for an adequate presentation of the music. The orchestral support (James Conlon conducting the Orchestre de Paris) appears to be fed to all speakers uniformly while the singing is confined to the front speakers. Otherwise, there’s no sense of directionality to the music. The sound is clear and distortion-free and fairly dynamic, but it never really soars the way the best operatic music can. Subtitles are provided in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Thai — omitting French and Korean from Columbia’s usual roster of included subtitles.
The only supplement on the disc is a short making-of featurette that focuses on Ying Huang and how she came to be involved in the lead role. It runs a little over 10 minutes in length. It’s interesting as far as it goes, particularly in its revelation of the limited acting experience of the two principals (clearly evident in the completed product, as already noted). A more fully balanced portrait of the production details would have been welcome, but we should be thankful for small mercies — Columbia provides nothing else, not even the trailer.
This filming of Madame Butterfly, for all its fine music, is a somewhat laborious exercise to sit through. The slim plot requires singing at the highest level from all the principals for the result to be successful. Unfortunately, this version lacks such quality, and further suffers from an uneven production under the guidance of director Frédéric Mitterand. Columbia’s DVD looks very good despite some unnecessary edge enhancement.