Puccini’s beloved tear-jerker “Madame Butterfly” has been fairly faithfully adapted by Frederic Mitterrand in a charming production that’s sure to bring out lovers of the lyric art. Tunisian settings, a French crew and a Chinese soprano in the title role work well together, and pic should please opera-loving art house crowds before heading for a long career on cultural cable and video.
Mitterrand, local TV personality, onetime helmer (the quirky “Love Letters From Somalia,” in 1981), and nephew of the retired French president, shows considerable ingenuity in transforming a hill outside Bizerte, Tunisia, into Nagasaki in 1904. Aside from this flash of audacity, he plays the opera straight , making no reference to the recent “M. Butterfly” and seldom cutting away from his humble hilltop set. Pic’s most successful departure is a long sequence of docu footage of old Japan sown between the two acts to add context to Butterfly’s hopeless predicament.
Opera tells the story of Butterfly (Ying Huang), a 15-year-old geisha who marries Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (Richard Troxell), a U.S. Navy officer on leave in Nagasaki. Pinkerton, intending no more than a fling, is warned by Sharpless (Richard Cowan), the consul in the port, that the young girl is taking the marriage very seriously. Pinkerton sails away, leaving Butterfly alone with her faithful maid, Suzuki (Ning Liang).
Three years pass, and when Pinkerton’s ship finally drops anchor in Nagasaki and he returns with an American wife, Butterfly’s vigil ends in tragedy.
As the lovelorn geisha, Shanghai-trained newcomer Huang displays considerable poise in making her Butterfly a moving and pathetic figure. As is only fitting, her performance of the aria “One Fine Day” is pic’s show-stopping moment. As Sharpless, the compassionate consul, baritone Cowan overshadows Troxell’s more mercurial Pinkerton and Liang’s serene Suzuki. Cast seems to grow more self-assured as pic progresses.
Apart from a few post-synchronization foul-ups in the early going, tech credits are adequate, with fluid lensing by Philippe Welt and the superb musical direction of James Conlon. Costumes, designed by Christian Gasc, are mercifully subdued, as is the set design. Mitterrand, unlike Pinkerton, remains faithful to Butterfly throughout.