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Michael Mark
American Record Guide, February 2010

This 1986 Scala Butterfly…is a faithful documentation of a stage production. On paper this may not seem like a performance to own. But the production is not Eurotrash. Director Keita Asari and his Japanese team have created a production very attractive to view and very imaginative and faithful to the opera. The sets and costumes look like they were painted with water colors—most strikingly the depiction of the sea. Colors are attractive yet kept to a minimum…The cast is a fine one. Hayashi has sung a wide-ranging repertory (La Juive opposite Tucker stands out in my mind), but this is my first acquaintance with her signature role. Her strong lyric voice lacks the alluring sound of Freni, but it is nonetheless expressive and attractive. She moves well; I assume, given the all-Japanese production team, that all her movements are authentic. She has a most touching quality to everything she does (including a lovely face). It is interesting to see and hear her subtle transformation from naive kid to heartbroken mature woman.

Dvorsky, who can be rather stiff on records and on stage, may not have Domingo’s voice and sexiness, but he makes the caddish ugly American Pinkerton very ardent in the love duet and genuinely remorseful in Act 3. Zancanaro’s firm baritone and authoritative presence creates a Sharpless one notices and sympathizes with. Hak-Nam Kim is a most appealing Suzuki; she truly seems in sync with her mistress’s moods. As with Hayashi, it’s a fascinating experience to watch her authentic Japanese movements and facial expressions. There’s a strong supporting cast on hand and excellent work by the Scala orchestra. And why not? Maazel has always been a strong Puccini conductor…He is kind to his singers without imposing on the work the heavy-handedness that characterizes much of his symphonic work. The orchestral playing in the love duet is truly rhapsodic, and the intermezzo between the two scenes of Act 2 is very symphonic but without a bloated quality.

Alan Swanson
Fanfare, December 2009

The idea behind this 1986 La Scala production was to feature “authentic orientalism,” to do which they used two Asian singers, a Japanese director, a Japanese designer, and a Japanese costumier. That Pinkerton and his wife should, therefore, be Americans was not taken to be a necessary consequence of such reasoning, and if Trouble wasn’t really blond, neither was Lt. Pinkerton (who had enough stripes on his sleeve and battle ribbons on his chest to be at least a naval Captain). Ah, well, it’s all opera, as they say, and Pinkerton is not authentically oriental. Puccini, of course, thought that “authentic orientalism” was not the issue. At stake were very human matters of understanding and misunderstanding that David Belasco’s play, on which Illica and Giacosa’s libretto is based, had put into the polarities of Japan and America in 1900. In the end, theater is not about ideas or even atmosphere, but about human interactions and decisions taken within a larger story. So, what do we get here? Well, Ichiro Takada’s set and Keita Asari’s direction are clean and unfussy, and that’s all to the good, and Derek Bailey’s restrained camerawork matched the quality of the production. Whether the whole show was authentically oriental or not is really immaterial. We are helped to focus on the essentials of the work, and that is the “authentic” part.

Madama Butterfly is about, well, Madam Butterfly. Yasuko Hayashi’s career took place both in her native Japan and in Europe and, though she sang most of the great bel canto roles, Butterfly was the cornerstone of that career. A great actress she is not (though this is a deliberately understated production), and her low, soft, singing is a bit metallic, but once the temperature heats up, she makes a thrilling sound. All the rest of the roles are one-sided figures. If one counters that Pinkerton changes his mind at the end, what kind of a change is it when he runs away again, as he had done three years earlier? He is as irresponsible at the end as at the beginning. No wonder Butterfly doesn’t want to give her son away. Indeed, Dvorsky’s Pinkerton is a consistently unpleasant character: from his first words, there is no love in his voice, only imperial arrogance, perhaps because he always sings rather loudly. Zancanaro’s Sharpless is the only sympathetic outsider, charged with the hopeless task of giving Butterfly the bad news he feared from the beginning would come. His voice is smooth and most pleasing to listen to, an ideal diplomat. The Korean soprano Hak-Nam Kim’s Suzuki is a strong support for Hayashi. Maazel’s conducting is solid, though the orchestra sounds a bit heavy. It is gratifying to be able to distinguish the words being sung.

This is the 1906 revision of the opera, though—except for the synopsis—the DVD presents it as if it were the two-act original version. The subtitles come in English, German, French, or Spanish. The most-recent competitor seems to be the 2003 Netherlands Opera version (BBC/Opus Arte). In 29:5, Arthur Lintgen disliked Robert Wilson’s production, but thought Edo de Waart’s conducting and the singing were good. I wasn’t bothered when I saw it on stage, but I haven’t seen the DVD.

Opera Today, November 2009

Verdi: Aida (La Scala, 1985) (NTSC) 100059
Puccini: Madama Butterfly (La Scala, 1986) (NTSC) 100111

In the mid-1980s (just before the Riccardo Muti era began), Lorin Maazel often ruled the conductor’s roost at La Scala.

His meticulous technique produces a big, smooth sound, with the occasional odd tempo or excessively highlighted detail to keep things interesting, or at least mildy so. At home in the opera house, he manages to maintain his conductor’s profile and yet support the singers. Your reviewer couldn’t begin to define Maazel’s interpretation of Verdi’s Aida or Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, but both scores are exceedingly well-played in these performances, which return to the DVD format on the ArtHaus Musik label.

The two productions do make for an interesting contrast. Luca Ronconi directed the 1986 Aida, which boasts gi-normous sets by Mauro Pagano and costumes (also gi-normous in the case of Luciano Pavarotti’s Radames) by Vera Marzot. With all the subtlety of a Cecil B. De Mille technicolor spectacular, the essentially intimate story of love and betrayal that Verdi and librettist Anotnio Ghislanzoni conceived gets rolled over and squashed flat by ambulatory monuments and acres of fake stone and boulders (which also produce much audible stage noise whem moved). The Madama Butterfly, also from 1986, goes for a restrained approach, employing an authentic Japanese aesthetic of spare beauty. In the opening supers, dressed as Ninjas, construct the home Pinkerton and Cio-cio-san will briefly share; the wide space and raked rock garden effect of act one even suggest a precursor to Robert Wilson’s production, many years in the future. This handsome authenticity springs from the work of director Keita Asari and set designer Ichiro Takada, with costumes by the renowned Hanae Mori. Their staging manages an effective balance between stylization and realism, until the final image, an audacious but not entirely effective switch to a purely decorative portraya—Butterfly’s suicide consists of her opening a white fan which turns blood-red, as supers unroll a red cloth beneath her.

Fans of grand opera spectacle can revel in the tacky pleasures of the Ronconi Aida, as cans fans of, frankly, tackiness. The ballets will provoke tittering in many, whether due to the female acolytes of Ptah appearing in blue caftans and turbans for a sort of morning stretching exercise, or the mostly nude bevy of pre-pubescent youth who bathe, for no clear reason, in the apartment of Amneris. Then there is the monumental splendor of Pavarotti as Radames, especially impressive as he stands astride a wheeled platform for the triumphal march, pulled by a very hard-working group of supers. Director Ronconi seems to have spent most of his time managing the movements of the singers so that they don’t get lost in the crowds or squashed by some errant, enormous prop. As Aida, Maria Chiara spends most of the performance with her arms awkwardly outstretched beseechingly. Ghena Dimitrova couldn’t be a more nefarious Amneris if she had a thin moustache scribbled on her upper lip. And Pavarotti is Pavarotti. The La Scala audience eats all this up, and why shouldn’t they, as the singing of the principals actually has much to offer. Pavarotti sings a beautiful Radames, lighter than many of his predecessors in the role but authoritative enough. Of course, some viewers may be distracted not only by his girth but also by his fascinating eyebrows, one of which continually rides higher than the other. Maria Chiara’s soprano may lack an individual profile, but she gives a strong, consistent reading of a difficult role. With her Afro and numerous jangly bracelets, she looks as if she is hosting a 1980s Halloween party—“Walk Like an Egyptian.” Although Dimitrova doesn’t sing with any more subtlety than she acts, when it comes to her big scene in act four, she delivers some excitement. The lower voices provide firm support, with Paata Burchuladze, near the beginning of his career, quite strong as the King, and Juan Pons an unlikely but impressive father to Chiara’s Aida. The great Nicolai Ghiaurov takes on Ramfis, and his voice shows his veteran status in ways both commendable (technique) and not so commendable (tone).

As a piece of dramatic music theater, Asari’s Madama Butterfly has it all over the Ronconi Aida. The portrayals are sharper, the visual element fresher, the impact stronger. The singing, however, doesn’t quite reach the same high level. A specialist of those years as Cio-Cio-san, Yasuko Hayashi has a surprisingly strong voice, though far from a beautiful one. She is a Butterfly who actually does better in the big moments at the end of the opera than she does with “Un bel di.” There isn’t much chemistry between her and her Pinkerton, Peter Dvorsky. He has a beefy sound, which is good enough for the strutting peacock of his early scenes, though not as pleasant in the long love duet or “Addio, fiorito asil.” Giorgio Zancanaro is a negligible Sharpless, while the effectiveness of an Asian Suzuki (a fine Hak-Nam Kim) is somewhat dimmed by having Italians play Goro and Yamadori (respectively, Ernesto Gavazzi and Arturo Testa).

The Aida set comes with a lugubrious “Making of” documentary, with a smattering of interesting background spread thin among 45 minutes of talking heads limiting themselves to mostly predictable and/or inane comments. It might have been nice to have some more information on the Asari/Takada/Mori Butterfly, but none is provided. Fans of Maazel, or mid-1980s La Scala productions, will enjoy the Aida, while the Butterfly can stand on its own, if without any claims to vocal splendors.

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