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87 of 88 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2005
This supposedly new release from Deutsche Grammophon is actually the same 1974 production previously released under the Decca label in 2001. That older title is still available at Amazon. This is a film version, not a stage production. It was directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and starred some of the finest performers available at the time. The great Herbert von Karajan conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna State Opera. It is without question a magnificient performance. Mirella Freni sings the role of Butterfly as few others can match. Placido Domingo is in equally fine form. Christa Ludwig is excellent as Suzuki. And yet the film as a whole doesn't really work. The trouble is that while Ponnelle tries to make this into a movie version of Butterfly, he neither has the resources nor the capability for doing so. The staging looks decidedly cheap, lacklustre and as some have commented, tacky. An effective movie version would benefit from realistic settings, a real house on a hill, with a sparkling Bay beneath. It could have done without some of the sensationalist/ridiculous set directions, like having Domingo jump out through the paper walls of the house, ostensibly for dramatic effect. This production could have worked (indeed would have been a triumphant success) if filmed purely as a stage based opera. However Ponnelle's final choice puts it neither here nor there. We have sets that look like they belong on stage (and not a very good stage at that), yet the performers are made to act as if they were in a movie. We get to see Placido Domingo chewing gum while he contemplates marrying Cio Cio San, presumably to show what a cad he is. And he continues to chew gum even while he's supposed to be singing. While this is still set in 19th century Japan, Domingo is seen to wear an obviously 20th century T-shirt. Domingo can act far better than what is shown here. As for the singing, the performances are all dubbed post-production. Lip synching ranges from poor to laughable. Because this is supposed to be a movie, and not a staged opera, we get the truly unbelieveable sight of these great performers singing without having to open their mouths - as we are supposed to be hearing their thoughts. Again, this could work provided the director is able to convince the audience that they are in a realistic film world. Unfortunately we are never transported into that world, we are all too aware that this is an opera sung on stage, albeit lip-synched.

The original Decca DVD sported a very soft, grainy transfer in fullscreen (pan & scan), littered with dirt specks and film nicks, looking very much like a poor quality VHS tape and this DG reissue looks no different. I can do without the DTS remix. This was recorded in stereo and the original release, in addition to a Dolby 5.0 surround, already had an excellent uncompressed Linear PCM audio track with quality equivalent to that of a good CD.

The original Decca release received mixed reviews. Aurally it is superb, one of the finest Butterflies ever. Visually it is close to a disaster. If you believe opera is only meant to be listened to, then this will be a top choice. If you believe opera should be an experience for both the eyes and ears, then pass this by. Even today, I still play the old Decca DVD, but only to listen to. I leave the TV off.

Note: It's not strictly correct to say that the singers were dubbed post-production. This movie has a curious history. It began as an audio-only studio recording with the exact same cast except that Luciano Pavarotti sang the role of Pinkerton. That recording was made in early 1974 at the Sofiensaal in Vienna. It received critical acclaim. The decision to make a movie using that original recording as a soundtrack came later that year. For the movie, they re-recorded Placido Domingo in the role as Pinkerton and spliced it into the earlier recording of the original cast. So the performers are in fact miming or lip-synching to the pre-recorded music while the film was being shot.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 2005
To my very surprise this DVD is already for sale in the Netherlands where I bought it yesterday, 18th May 2005, whereas it is not yet released in the USA. That said, I already owned the earlier release and had hoped that they would have remastered the film for DVD. Alas, they did not, although they put the sound on DTS 5.0 which I am not yet able to listen to, which is the only difference compared to the DVD I already owned. (I think the sound might be great on DTS, but I do not know for now).

I think the singing on this DVD is superb and impeccable (I am a big fan of Domingo and Frenis pianissimos are the most beautiful you will ever hear). But the film looks as if somebody put it directly from VHS tape unto DVD (which is probably the case if I am to guess) which is a shame, seeing as the price I paid would have suggested that they did some work on it.

Five stars for the singing and three for the quality of the DVD (and shame on all the big companies for daring to sell us this kind of quality), makes for the four stars given.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2006
I completely disagree with some of the reviewers. How easy it is to misunderstand a fine director's intentions!
The story of "Butterfly" is one of the most sordid tragedy in all opera repertoire. Think about it. An innocent 15 year old girl to escape poverty, thru a profit-hungry marriage broker, marries an opportunistic and unscrupulous American sea captain who seduces and abandons her.. She is cursed and abandoned by society, robbed of her child and driven to suicide.
So what do the reviewers want? Pretty Japanese scenery with Fujijama in the background?
The director created a unique film that's atmospheric, surrealistic, colorless to suit this story. The set: a nondescript cottage surrounded by a depressing barren field. Characters are well drawn, even the secondary ones. (eg. the grotesque but frightening Goro or the terrifying Bonzo).
It is unfortunate that the 15 year old Cio-Cio San is played by a much older singer which is illusion destroying, but Mirella Freni is superb, it is HER role.
Musically this set is absolutely without equal,(perhaps the magical Sinopoli comes near,but that's a CD) but I must emphasize the contribution of Karajan, who is the genius behind it all. I never thought he was a Puccini fan, but obviously he has a special feeling for this work. He takes a dramatic view of the score and almost re-discovers the opera. His ear for detail is uncanny, the love-duet is sensuous with soaring melodic lines, the great aria (Un bel di) rarely sounded more dramatic, full of emotion. It just builds and builds! And the 3rd act is so powerful, it will leave you breathless. You won't forget this film easily.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2005
Oh puhleeeeeez - Freni's teeth not suitable? Not good enough for what? Is this Miss Japan beauty pageant or what??! I guess most of the reviewers were expecting another level of Oriental exoticism and, when they didn't get any, were subsequently disilliusioned. If that's your first and foremost wish, get the Frederic Mitterand 1995 film with the Chinese soprano (now THAT should get rave reviews, shouldn't it, because she's got the Oriental eyes; and the Tunisian location will easily fool you into thinking that this indeed is Nagasaki). For everyone else, I wholeheartedly recommend the Karajan/Domingo/Freni version. It's got depth. It hasn't got dental perfection. Thankfully.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2006
I can't understand all this carping about how rotten Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's film is. Okay, this isn't Orson Welles. The film is certainly flawed, with a few cheesy moments, most of which have been mentioned in other reviews(the opening, with Domingo in a T-shirt comically running through a paper wall, the bizarre dream sequence, Goro as a bucktoothed stereotype). These flaws are what prevent me from giving the film a five star rating. But there are also some very beautiful moments, and besides, from an aural standpoint, you aren't going to find a better performance of Madama Butterfly ANYWHERE. Get a grip, folks. To hear Freni and Domingo at their prime singing what is arguably Puccini's greatest score(it is certainly his most beautiful) conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and for under twenty dollars, I would be willing to put up with the singers running around in clown makeup for two-and-a-half hours. The music making on this disc is simply too good not to be recommended just because the filmmaker's ambitions occasionally tax his reach.

For me, a good opera film captures the mood of the music. Butterfly is probably Puccini's most atmospheric, lush, and dreamy score(although La Fanciulla del West is stiff competition), and Ponnelle's film is appropriately dreamlike. Let's use the marvelous love duet that ends the first act as an example. For me, this duet, along with Liu's death scene from Turandot, represents Puccini at the very height of his musical-dramatic brilliance. The music is rapturous and erotic, delaying the crescendo until the moment becomes almost unbearable. Ponnelle paints this music in dreamlike images of ever-increasing passion. Granted, this film was made in 1974, so some of the more trippy moments might seem a little dated, but if you take that into account, the moment is beautifully filmed, haunting and evocative, just like the score. The image perfectly matches the music...isn't that what opera on film is all about? If this were the only example of this perfect union of sound and vision, then I would be less enthusiastic about the film as a whole, but throughout most of Madama Butterfly, Ponnelle manages that lush, languorous tide of images that matches Puccini's flowing music.

Regarding the sound portion, as I said before, you won't hear Butterfly performed better, that is a guarantee. Mirella Freni IS Cio-Cio-San, the innocence, the passion, the self-delusion, the heartbreak. Oh, and she sings the role to perfection, capturing the character's timidity and strength. Butterfly's entrance is probably my favorite musical entrance in all opera, and hearing Freni's singing, quiet at first and from a distance, gradually building as she and her bridal party make their arrival, is a breathtaking moment, outclassing any staged production I have ever seen. A very young Placido Domingo is in prime voice, and is ideally cast as the rake B.F. Pinkerton, initially cavalier to the point of being cruel, later violently regretful(too little, too late). He does look somewhat risible running in slow motion with his arms flailing about in his handlebar mustache, but overall he is a fine romantic lead. Robert Kerns has a strong and compassionate baritone voice, which matches his character's best qualities, the voice of reason, Pinkerton's disregarded conscience. Having Christa Ludwig in the role of Suzuki might be considered luxury casting, since her character is less prominent, but she makes the most of her time onstage as the matronly confidante to Butterfly, she is definitely at her prime vocally at this point in her career. Von Karajan's conducting is also in its prime, not as slow as it sometimes is, or else I didn't notice it because the slowness matches the languid tempo of much of the music. The sound quality is clear and full-bodied enough that hardly any of the notes are obscured.

Forget the negative reviews. If you love Butterfly, give this a chance. There are flaws, but considering the strengths of the performances and of much of the film, those flaws are easily overlooked.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2007
If you're looking for a screen adaptation of Madama Butterfly, your best bet would be to choose Madame Butterfly made in 1995 starring Richard Troxell. This dvd version is barely above a filmed stage version, and perhaps a filmed stage version would have been better than the absolutely atrocious staging. If you are looking for a fantastic version of Madama Butterfly to listen to, then get the recording with Freni and Domingo. The acting in this dvd is definitely a reason to get it, if only for Mirella Freni and Christa Ludwig, who make this movie in the part of acting. Domingo has a great voice but the acting is so-so. If you can get past the complete lack of budget for this movie (Butterfly's 'kimono' doesn't even have the sleeves finished, if you notice, they're fraying because they were just cut) and past the fact that Pinkerton is in a t-shirt, then this is a decent dvd. Get this for the vocals alone, but get the newer version of a visual and aural experience that will be the only version of Madame Butterfly you'll ever need.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2008
This isn't a full review but a response to the other reviews here - I read all of them. The singing is excellent and listening to it with the video turned off is not a bad idea as some have suggested. The visuals are not uniformly bad. There are bad moments - I agree with those others have noted. Few have noted the good moments - there are some! One example is the morning scene after Butterfly has waited all night for Pinkerton to return. It is a lovely movie moment. There are lots of moments that are perfectly fine - like the flower scene in the garden - not great movie-making, but perfectly fine. Most of the scenes in the movie fall into the "more or less good" category. Of course it is the embarrassingly bad (or just puzzling) ones that stick in the mind of most reviewers here. If you watch this movie, bring a big helping of forgiveness for the visuals and you'll enjoy it. If something offends you, close your eyes and enjoy the singing!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2009
Not having read the brief message on the back of the cover, it came as a surprise that this was a film not a photographed live performance. The opening scene, as some reviewers have pointed out, was hardly an inducement to stay the course. (It showed a disheveled Pinkerton in T-Shirt running out of what we learn is his Japanese house, obviously in the grip of strong emotions for whose cause all who know the story of Madame Butterfly immediately register.) Customarily, I do not like filmed versions much preferring photographed live performances.
To be fair, I did not mind the unmoving mouths indicating introspective rather than objectified expression. What I did mind was the failure to take advantage of the possibilities inherent in film making but denied to the stage. This lack of adventurousness made for a lack of vigor and creativity in the production.
Yet, regardless of being an example of routine film-making, I had quite a good time. The reason is simple enough: the ravishing music by Puccini, which never goes stale, and the top-notch singing by the two stars, Domingo as Pinkerton, Freni as Butterfly. Having the likes of Christa Ludwig in support strengthened the positive response. Frankly, while I would have preferred seeing them sing live, with all its risks, but yet with its spark of spontaneity, I still could not resist that music, so endowed with the spirit of love dominant and love betrayed.If you have seen numerous versions of the opera, probably you should pass on this one and take another look at a production with which you are familiar. If you have never seen the opera in full, or have seen it only a few times, it is quite likely this will provide you with a most satisfying experience. Later you can take on one of the more full-blooded live performances.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 11, 2008
From the David Belasco play to Puccini's opera to Schonberg's Miss Saigon, there are many faces of Madame Butterfly. But none is any more exquisite than that of Mirella Freni-- especially as she sings the near-perfect aria, "Un bel di" and the Flower Song duet with Suzuki. However, Ponnelle, who staged and directed the film version, made Placido Domingo as Lt. Pinkerton a little too caddish for my taste. This version seems to resemble a faded memory that speaks not to the intellect but to the heart. It certainly deserves a place in any opera collection.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2007
We were disappointed with this first viewing of Madama Butterfly. We found it melodramatic rather than tragic which may be attributed to the production. The flashbacks, dream sequences and "inner thought vocals" were annoying, the lighting was poor and too contrived in many of the scenes, the staging was good but not great and fading between scenes was disastrous. The vocals were very good... but I love Freni.
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