Yet another Madama Butterfly. To have a chance at success, any production of this operatic warhorse must be very excellent musically or offer some effective and unusual take on the story. This new one from Arthaus Musik scores strongly in both those respects: performances by the singers, orchestra and chorus are good to outstanding, and the Vincent Boussard production is quite compelling, especially in the Second Act. Here, when the music settles into some recycling of previously presented material and is thus a bit less effective (at least that's how I've always viewed the second of the three acts), the production takes a decided turn toward the imaginative and bold. Kimonos and other traditional Japanese garments are mostly replaced by modern day garb such as slacks (jeans, in the case of Cio-Cio San), and the whole opera, at least temporarily, takes on a more modern character. Suzuki, with a robe and tight slacks, dresses half-traditional and half-modern. Obviously, this deftly employed touch was introduced to signify both the passage of time and the adoption of certain Western ways by Cio-Cio San. But does it also suggest a certain, perhaps somewhat unwelcome, Americanization of Japan?
Sets are well designed: on the walls are shadowy vines sprouting flowers (which have a faded appearance in the Second Act), and in the middle of the stage is a spiral stairway descending through (or rising from) a large round cutout in the floor that allows characters to enter or exit a scene from below the stage. The stage itself is otherwise mostly barren, though the subtle use of lighting (which changes a lot throughout the opera) provides a colorful quality to the action and visual aspects. Cio-Cio San's child is represented by a large doll attired in an American naval uniform. Portraying the child has always been a problem, and using a doll or puppet is nothing new. Overall, things are less exotic than what you encounter in most other Butterflys, but still Boussard manages to be effectively atmospheric in conveying this tragic tearjerker.
Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincăi is splendid as Pinkerton and clearly possesses the vocal skills to make him one of the leading tenors of his generation. That said, the star of the show, without doubt, is Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou, who effectively projects the demeanor of the teenage Cio-Cio San. Granted, Voulgaridou, active on the stage since at least the late 1990s, doesn't look like a teenager, but she is slim, attractive and projects a youthful appearance better than any other soprano in the several other Butterfly videos I've reviewed here in the past decade or so. Her voice is beautiful and quite powerful and her dramatic skills are impressive. She must be regarded as a strong rival to Patricia Racette, probably my previous favorite in this role on video. I reviewed her Sony recording here in 2011 (DVD 88697-80662-9). I've also written notices for three other quite fine Madama Butterflys: the Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray featuring Raffaella Angeletti in the title role (706304), also from 2011; the TDK DVD with Fiorenza Cedolins (DVWW-OPMBUT), from 2006; and the Opus Arte DVD featuring Cheryl Barker (OA0937D), also from 2006. If I had to make a choice from among these, I believe I might well choose this new Arthaus offering over the splendid Sony, not least because the supporting cast, with Cristina Damian as Suzuki and Lauri Vasar as Sharpless, is excellent. Moreover, conductor Alexander Joel draws splendid performances from the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hamburg State Opera Chorus. Every other aspect about this Blu-ray disc is excellent, including the picture clarity and sound reproduction. Highly recommended.
Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings