, September 2011
This DVD offers a very straightforward visual record of the 2009 outdoor production of Madama Butterfly from the Sferisterio Festival in Italy. Given the commercial imperatives that drive such Summer events it should come as no surprise that this is an essentially traditional reading of this marvellous score with a couple of neat directorial touches to keep it from being totally run-of-the-mill. The stadium setting provides both advantages and disadvantages which can be seen and heard within minutes of the piece beginning. There is no real pit to accommodate the orchestra and as ever with an outdoor acoustic the players have to work hard to produce any warmth or blend. The abiding impression is of workmanlike rather than outstanding playing. The ‘stage’ is exceptionally wide in comparison to its depth. This does make for a rather marvellous entrance of Butterfly and her family as they are truly able to enter singing in the far distance. The width does mean that the focus of the action—a beautiful Japanese house does sit rather dwarfed in the centre. The rather ragged interjections from the chorus as Butterfly’s relatives also point to co-ordination problems brought on by the sheer scale of the space. As the piece progresses it becomes apparent that the chorus have the sloppy tendency to sing rather behind the beat in any case—a habit that detracts from the energy and attack of their few contributions.
The video director is able to use the stadium setting to good effect adding to the usual roster of close-up and wide shots a rather impressive high-angle wide shot from high above the stage as well as a low-angle upward looking shot as if seated in the front stalls. Unfortunately the overall video direction is very much ‘by numbers’ with each musical phrase mechanically cutting to a new angle. Except when the characters move the cameras rarely track around them. Another slight disappointment is the lighting. Outdoor events make it all but impossible for a lighting designer to achieve anything but basic states—certainly in the earlier acts when dark is still falling. That is certainly true here with much of Act I appearing to be performed in one set state.
Vocally this proves to be a solidly acceptable yet rarely inspiring reading. Tenor Massimiliano Pisapia has a pleasing Italianate ring to his voice and rides the big Act I opening duets with Sharpless with convincing ease. Director Pier Luigi Pizzi has given him various little bits of stage business to emphasise the emotional indifference indeed callousness he feels towards the teenage Butterfly. The main problem here is the plain and unsubtle performance by Claudio Sgura as Sharpless. He sings perfectly well but with none of the humanity or concern for Butterfly that throws the thoughtless Pinkerton’s actions into even starker relief. There is a slightly unintended comical element in that Sgura towers over the short and slightly rotund Pisapia—an effect emphasised by the low-angle shots. As mentioned before. Butterfly’s entrance is rather beautifully engineered. Raffaella Angeletti is not the most sweet-toned singer ever to have sung the role and she struggles as all before her have to make her character appear an artless fifteen year-old. This is not a point worth labouring as it really does go with the piece. The tiny but significant role of Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze is sung with real spit and fury by Enrico Iori. The short scene of his denunciation helps set up the glorious and extended Act I finale perfectly. This is a excellent example of the interdependence of a good libretto on its various elements; without understanding Butterfly’s distress and fear at her uncle’s words we cannot savour the glories of the music to come. Unfortunately Pisapia lacks the ideal tenderness when he addresses her “Bimba, Bimba”; to give Pinkerton any saving grace this is the moment we should hear in his voice that he does care after all. Pisapia sings perfectly well—indeed often excitingly—but without the heart behind the words. Conductor Daniele Callegari keeps this final section of the Act under steady control. The singers are perfectly able to cope with his conservative tempi but the sense of a volcano of passion building to a cathartic climax is diminished. By ‘conservative’ I do not mean slow per se rather that he favours a performance style that cannot be characterised as either impetuous or impulsive. That said, this is a still a wonderful passage.
Act II is remarkable for the sustained emotional intensity of the writing with Butterfly ever-present on stage. After the naive passion of Act I most actresses are more at home with the still idealistic yet more worldly-wise Butterfly. It would be foolish to pretend that Angeletti has the most sheerly beautiful voice but she is good at conveying the range of emotions from elation to outrage and desolation that this act demands. The dramatic fact that Butterfly has aged and is more worldly-wise in the three years between the acts does allow for the role to sit more easily in the hands of relatively mature singers. One Fine day builds to a powerful climax but the ecstatic release is again hampered by Callegari’s rather four-square tempi. Again, it is not that they are slow as such but rather that they lack the extra element of rubato that gives this music extra life. Also, the orchestra as recorded, remain resolutely no more than solid. Puccini is a far finer and indeed subtle orchestrator than often given credited. The essential details here register but without any great warmth or dynamic range.
Suzuki is well acted and sung by Annunziata Vestri. Sharpless disappoints once more with his rather two-dimensional interpretation of the role. The revelation of Pinkerton’s son is a powerful moment allowing Angeletti to sing at full voice to impressive effect. One additional consequence of the wide stage is very apparent here. To follow the conductor’s beat Angeletti has to look far away from the sight-line of the other characters on stage. In the arena I expect this barely registers—on DVD in relative close-up this severing of the singer’s interaction diminishes the emotional impact of the singing. However, time and again I was struck afresh with the genius of Puccini’s writing—the way the love motifs of Act I are woven into the fabric of the second act as Butterfly plans for what she assumes will be Pinkerton’s loving return to her arms is supremely poignant. So while I would say this is far from being a ‘great’ version of Butterfly it still moves the viewer.
I should have mentioned earlier—although it will come as no surprise—that the version used here is the very standard three act revised edition with the Humming Chorus linking the second and third acts. Pizzi introduces a simple but neat idea here—there is a ghostly procession (of Butterfly’s ancestors I assume) that mirrors the wedding procession of the first act. Their presence, together with a statue of the Buddha revealed throughout the preceding act in the centre portion of the house underlines the weight of tradition Butterfly battles in renouncing her faith to marry Pinkerton. This neatly sets up her final suicide implying as it does that ultimately this tradition is too strong for her to reject. I am less convinced by the ‘dream ballet’ staged to the introduction of Act III. In principle this is not a bad idea. This is a long introduction lasting over seven minutes and one can imagine a fickle summer audience fidgeting in their seats with nothing to watch. Pizzi’s—again simple—idea is that this is Butterfly’s dream/dance imagining of Pinkerton’s romantic return. As executed it fails on two levels—the pair of dancers reinforce the impression that the ‘real’ Pinkerton and Butterfly are not the most physically attractive people on the planet and also the choreography lies uneasily between ballet and musical theatre. The emotions expressed through the dance are too obvious, too sentimental for the piece. It is well enough, indeed fluently, performed but lacking in quality or flair—again the impression of solid workmanship comes to mind.
Suzuki’s confrontation with Pinkerton near the opening of the final act is very well performed with Vestri capturing the sadness and reproach well—indeed she is the singing actress who most acutely inhabits her role throughout these scenes. Pisapia shows that Pinkerton has ‘grown up’ too and the great climax of these two characters plus Sharpless is a moving sequence as it always is. I would be churlish not to say that Sgura produces long-breathed lines of powerful full-toned singing. I just wish he would engage more with the words—so when he says repeatedly to Pinkerton “didn’t I tell you…” there is no anger or edge just more beautiful singing. After occupying the stage throughout the second act Butterfly’s delayed entrance in the third is another masterstroke by Puccini. Here Angeletti is superb changing from hopeful excitement to chilled realisation on seeing Pinkerton’s wife. Her physical acting matching perfectly the pared back blanched vocal tone as the full implication of the situation dawns. For sure it is another all but bullet-proof moment emotionally as written by Puccini but Angeletti impresses by the subtlety of her approach rather than any over-the-top brow-beating or hand-wringing. Indeed, as she should, from this moment on she dominates the rest of the opera. The stature of her performance grows with her farewell to her son producing the most powerful and committed singing. Pizzi’s last act of directorial intervention is to have Suzuki administer the coup de grace on the opera’s final interrupted cadence rather than the audience see Pinkerton arrive moments too late.
Were one to have attended this performance on holiday I would imagine you would go home very happy with the evening. Whether it merits a place on your library shelf for repeated viewing I am not so sure. All of the principals sing perfectly well but only Vestri and Angeletti bring theatrical presence to their singing. The more I listened to Pisapia as a voice the more I liked the actual sound he makes. He is pleasingly untaxed by the tessitura of the role and while distinctively Italianate does have an attractive timbre. His limitations are a physical woodenness and emotional two-dimensionality. The same is true of Sgura.