Dir. Julian Napier, UK, 2012, 130 mins
Cast : Liping Zhang, James Valenti, Daniel Grice, Anthony Michaels-Moore
Review by Marianne Gray
Madam Butterfly is one of the world’s favourite operas and 3D works brilliantly for this tale of love, deceit, passion and betrayal because it is a very intimate story told in a lot of one-on-one arias, which the camera literally gets behind. With big emotion like in this opera to have a camera soar into the hearts and souls of the characters means you are in the best seats in the house, the “house” on this occasion being the Royal Opera House, London.
Madam Butterfly (1904) is a Japanese tragedy in two acts. It has a strong naturalistic plot and tells a well-worn story of love to a ravishing, sensual score. The story of a Japanese geisha’s love for an American naval officer, it is set in a small, precious, remote world hemmed with conventions, Nagasaki at the beginning of the 20th century.
Based on a play by American playwright David Belasco, the music was composed by Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924), who also composed favourites like Tosca, Turandot and La Boheme. For a first-time opera goer it is a great way to start, as the story is universal and the emotions still ring true, while for a life-long opera fan, it is a meticulous interpretation of an often mangled popular opera.
American naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton (tenor) falls for a Japanese geisha girl known as Butterfly (soprano), and goes through a ceremony of marriage with her, despite the warnings of the American Consul, Sharpless (baritone). For him it is just a casual affair, which he imagines she will treat with equal ease. For her it means renouncing both family and religion.
Pinkerton goes back to America in the line of naval duty and for three years Butterfly, with her unwavering love, waits for his return. Supremely confident that he will come back to her, she refuses to consider marriage to a wealthy Japanese prince, insisting that according to American law she is still married and that her new baby boy is an American.
When she sees Pinkerton’s ship, the Abraham Lincoln, sail in once again, she joyfully prepares to greet him with her servant Suzuki (mezzo) and son. But Pinkerton does not come for ages and when he does, it is with his elegant new American wife, Kate. Enough said.
Filmed in front of a live audience at the Royal Opera House, this reality gives the film a certain quiet vitality. Using overhead, side and handheld cameras, director Julian Napier has managed to bring a highly emotional opera into a calm, reflective, almost timeless form. Instead of the usual cherry blossom trees and finicky, colourful Japanese sets, the set here is minimalist, sometimes so simple you forget they are on a stage and not in their own private home. At times it is almost like you are watching somebody’s life through a chink in the shutter. Puccini knew his stuff on human emotion and interestingly seeing it in 3D only heightens it.
As Pinkerton the tall, dark, dashing American tenor James Valenti does a marvelous job of making it credible why he would have been swept up into the seemingly exotic Japanese lifestyle. After a career serving his country on a Naval vessel, his understanding of life and love in this apparently easy-come, easy-go port is one of a happy visiting sailor. Not so for Butterfly.
Liping Zhang as Madam Butterfly is in fine voice. It is really hard to believe in her as the teenage Butterfly, being a woman of a certain age, but as her stage character ages she definitely appears to fit the role more comfortably. By the ending in the opera’s great heart-breaking moment, she inhabits the role fully, achieving the realism of tragic, dramatic beauty.
This is the second live stage co-production between the Royal Opera House and RealD, who filmed Bizet’s Carmen in 3D last year. For Madam Butterfly they used the ARRI Alexa camera, which is the most sophisticated digital camera around and gives something like 13-15 stops of dynamic range, so ultimately the image is cleaner, crisper and there’s more information in it. Which means basically the film looks great