For reasons I'll explain shortly, seeing and hearing this production of Puccini's masterwork, Madama Butterfly, prompted me to conclude that opera on video is in a second phase now, a better phase than the preceding one. In the 1990s, when DVDs were first appearing in large numbers, you could buy the CD version of an opera (which usually became available first), then often acquire its counterpart on DVD. Sometimes the DVD would be a disappointment of sorts because its visual aspects were inferior to the musical ones. But then you the buyer and opera lover might not have felt cheated, so happy were you to possess a favorite opera in this new and fascinating medium.
Now, the listener not only has more choices in the standard repertory on DVD but is also a bit jaded by the new technology. Because labels realize the situation has changed, they are producing a much better product. At least that's what I believe has happened after viewing a number of DVDs recently that have almost all been of superior quality. Even first-time issues of taped performances from decades back seem to be chosen discreetly.
This Madama Butterfly would not alone, of course, confirm my view that opera videos have substantially improved, but its superior quality certainly bolsters it, even though I'll concede the production has some flaws. In purely musical terms, it is absolutely first-rate, with strong singers in every role. Australian soprano Cheryl Barker, a rising star on the operatic scene today, heads the cast. Her Cio-Cio San is simply stunning, and while I'm tempted to say she steals the show, I must commend the others in the cast who more than hold their own: Catherine Keen, Martin Thompson and veteran Richard Stilwell, to mention the more prominent ones.
There are only two minor drawbacks to the production: Stage Director Robert Wilson presents rather barren sets, which in themselves to me are effective and quite atmospheric (I'll count them a plus here, though you might not), but the singers' movements are oddly robotic in places and their mannequin-like poses, particularly stylized hand gestures, impart a sense of the exotic at the expense of nearly becoming a distraction in their stiffness and frozenness. The other drawback is the orchestra's occasional tendency, especially in the brass section, to play too loudly, or to overwhelm the singers. Or are the sound engineers partly to blame here? Anyway, these quibbles aside (and they are ultimately minor quibbles, I can assure), this is a splendid Madama Butterfly.
Edo de Waart leads the performance with consistent insight and the orchestra responds with spirit. The sound, with the exception noted above, is excellent. Strongly recommended.
Copyright © 2006, Robert Cummings