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Puccini - Madama Butterfly / Karajan, Freni, Domingo, Ludwig

14 customer reviews

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(Nov 20, 2001)
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Editorial Reviews

Of all Puccini's major operas, the intimate tragedy of Madama Butterfly is least in need of elaborate staging and might therefore benefit most from the close scrutiny of film. The story is domestic, the setting Spartan, the incidental characters kept to a minimum. This 1974 version, however, demonstrates that Butterfly still needs a healthy injection of proscenium arch melodrama. Director Jean-Pierre Ponelle's production strives for realism but remains unfortunately studio-bound, having neither the benefit of location filming nor the heightened reality of an opera stage. The exterior is a perpetually fog-shrouded heath of indeterminate locale; the interior is cramped and unadorned. The setting is just too prosaic to contain the epic emotions of grand opera.

Thankfully, the cast is a superb one, headed by Plácido Domingo's rakish Pinkerton and Mirella Freni's rubicund Butterfly. Their singing is incomparable, as is Herbert von Karajan's musical direction of the Vienna Philharmonic. The singers mime to prerecorded music, which is occasionally disconcerting since when film demands close-ups, opera provides broad gestures. Musically, this Butterfly is impeccable. Visually it adds nothing that could not be seen to better effect in a stage version. --Mark Walker

Special Features


Product Details

  • Actors: Mirella Freni, Plácido Domingo, Christa Ludwig, Robert Kerns, Michel Sénéchal
  • Directors: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
  • Writers: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, David Belasco, Giuseppe Giacosa, Jean-Louis Martinoty, Luigi Illica
  • Producers: Fritz Buttenstedt
  • Format: Classical, Color, Dolby, NTSC
  • Language: Italian (Dolby Digital 5.1), Italian (PCM Stereo)
  • Subtitles: French, Spanish, English, German, Mandarin Chinese
  • Region: All Regions
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Universal Records
  • DVD Release Date: November 20, 2001
  • Run Time: 146 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B00005OC06
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #274,435 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Puccini - Madama Butterfly / Karajan, Freni, Domingo, Ludwig" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By V. Kaminsky on September 21, 2004
This DVDis hampered by a distractingly poor, kitchy production. Although, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was a well liked director, especially during the 1970s when this was filmed, he almost ruins this DVD with outdated and misguided directing and editing. The sets are generally tolerable but the costumes and make-up are unattractive and borderline silly. Worst is the general directing and editing, which culminate at the end of the last act when a t-shirted Domingo jumps through a shoji screen to be freeze-framed in mid-air: a final example of Ponnelle's misguided attempts at drama.

Musically, the cast is superb. Domingo is in strong voice and an ideal Pinkerton, despite being a bit clumsy an actor under Ponnelle's direction. Freni fares much better as an actress, and is overall a lovely Butterfly, despite a few harsh notes. Karajan leads the orchestra wonderfully, rounding out an overall strong and compelling interpretation of Puccini's score.

Ultimately, the poor production leads one to enjoy listening to the DVD more than watching it. As such, until a better DVD of Butterfly is released, it may pay to just stick with audio recordings and forego the visuals which distract from the beauty of these fine musical artists' interpretations of one of opera's greatest scores.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful By David on December 28, 2001
The advent of opera on DVD has been a real boon to neophytes and aficionados of opera alike, as it presents the medium in a way that can only be superseded by a trip to the opera house itself. This Madama Butterfly is a film version of Puccini's beloved opera, and as such it takes certain liberties (obvious lip-synching, and singing when the actors are clearly not singing--the music represents thoughts "in their heads"). While all of this can be somewhat of a distraction, it is the poor acting, especially of Domingo, that hinders my being able to suspend reality while watching this production--in spite of some outstanding singing from Freni, Ludwig AND Domingo. Evidence of poor acting begin early on when the viewer actually witnesses Domingo's Pinkerton CHEWING GUM (!) over a stretch of several minutes--very strange indeed, and HIGHLY annoying. Was this a conscious decision or was it a gross oversight? My guess is the latter, for I find nothing artistic or symbolic in it; but it is such inexcusable distractions that ruin portions of this opera for me. It is as if Domingo is trying too hard to make us loath his character. This is most unfortunate, as Domingo sings AND acts brilliantly in Rosi's film version of Carmen, which he did about a decade after Butterfly. While Freni certainly does not look 15, few Butterflys do, and who cares when they sing so ravishingly as she? Freni gives a beautifully convincing performance, and her scenes are the most thrilling by far. The sets and backgrounds are acceptable although for a flim version, they fail to evoke an intense "Japanese" flavor the way those in Rosi's film version of Carmen do for Andalucía. In conclusion, opera on DVD places more demands on a production: to be truly outstanding, the VISUAL (acting/sets/backgrounds) component must be equal to the singing. This opera film fails in the first department, but is saved by the singing--which one can get on a CD!
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By George Thorstad on September 5, 2004
Perhaps the most authoritative voice (in English at least) The Penguin Guide to Recordings of Classical Music judges Herbert von Karajan "second to none" as an interpreter of Puccini. However with an opera like Madama Butterfly that focuses on one character the lead singer must assume prime importance. Mirella Freni has recorded this opera three times and it is no coincidence that The Penguin Guide crowns her recordings as the three best. "Sweeter of voice than any on record" (their words), Freni effloresces as Butterfly, bringing into bloom her rich bouquet of tonal colors to flush the role to life with compelling urgency while "consistently growing in stature from the young girl to the tragic heroine." In uncharacteristic harmony, The Gramophone agrees that Freni is indeed the finest Butterfly while Fred Plotkin, former director of New York's Metropolitan Opera, in his book, "Opera 101", takes a step further and adorns her "almost unrivaled" in the sphere of Romantic Italian opera.

Following its disastrous opening Puccini withdrew Madama Butterfly from performance and, along with the librettists, set to work on it for three months. The decision to mitigate the villainy of Pinkerton and invest him with some redeeming qualities proved pivotal for without such improvement the dynamic degenerates into melodrama and Butterfly lapses into a silly young woman who closes her eyes to reality and gets crushed by it. Pinkerton--though careless (hence the chewing gum, t-shirt, tossing the Ottoke, the mutinous collar, etc.), irresponsible, and callously ethnocentric--is never consciously evil and the distinction becomes crucial to establishing Butterfly as a tragic heroine.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 28, 2002
Puccini's Madama Butterfly conducted by Von Karajan and the sublime voices of Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni are a combination that, in my mind, is unbeatable. It should be kept in mind that when this film was made Freni and Domingo were not yet 40 - a time in their lives and careers when their voices were at their peaks. Being able to see and hear them as they were then makes this film historic.
When it comes to acting, I'll grant you that Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni are not in the same league with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, but they nonetheless committed themselves admirably in this project. I was especially smitten with Mirella Freni's portrayal of Cio Cio San. I see Cio Cio San as a very young (15?) girl who is painfully shy and oh so sensitive and naïve. A girl who fell in love with love with Pinkerton (the bum!) at the center of this tragedy - a girl who later became a textbook case of denial in the 2nd act that was finally driven to end her own life. That's what Freni conveyed to me and no matter how many times I watch this production, I am driven literally to tears.
The film and directing had a few rough spots - camera angles in particular - I'm sure Ponnelle would have some second thoughts. However, those details notwithstanding, the soft monotones he used throughout created an aura that was perfect background for the drama that unfolded within it.
I feel obliged to say something here about lip synching - one of the curses of this sort of filmmaking. I've watched this film countless times (I'm addicted!) and the characters mouths work along with lyrics most convincingly.
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