Friday, 20 April 2012

MADAM BUTTERFLY 3D / Royal Opera House Cinema / Review

Royal Opera House Cinema
Cathay Cineplexes
Wednesday (18 April 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 April 2012 with the title "Great close-ups but Butterfly's 3-D superfluous".

Synopsis: In 19th century Nagasaki, young Japanese geisha Cio-Cio-San (Liping Zhang) forsakes family and religion to marry the American naval officer B.F.Pinkerton (James Valenti) for love. However his true intentions, and how the term “Pinkerton Syndrome” comes about, are the recipe for a poignant cross-cultural tragedy.

The reproduction of opera performances has been making quantum leaps over the past century, from scratchy shellac 78s, through long playing records, VHS videotapes, high definition DVD to the present state of the art - three-dimensional movies in Dolby sound. Each step along the way, one gets every bit closer to the experience of actually being in the opera house for a “live” performance.

Following the success of Carmen in 3D, Julian Napier’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, recorded before a “live” audience, is founded on the same values of combining dramatic realism with musical integrity. There is however one big difference, the rowdy crowd scenes which made Carmen so vivid and lively while rendered in 3D, are absent in Butterfly.

Butterfly has a far more intimate setting, with all the scenes in Cio-Cio-San’s hangar-like chamber occupied mostly by two or three singers in largely static scenarios. The 3D technology becomes almost superfluous, as the very fine production staged by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier would have stood well on its own without the gimmickry.

More successful were the close-ups, often missed in live performances, where each facial expression and nuance is indelibly captured. Besides her sensitive yet powerful vocals, Chinese soprano Liping Zhang in the title role is a terrific and totally believable actress. Who can forget the look of horror and disbelief at the moment she finally realises Pinkerton’s duplicity?

Her agonised death throes, theatrical but bloodless, were equally grabbing, all of which made James Valenti’s dapper looks appear wooden and unsympathetic. Perhaps he was most convincing at playing a real jerk. Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Consul Sharpless and Helene Schneiderman’s Suzuki, caught in the middle and embarrassed by the East-West divide, were also a perceptive presence.

The tragedy in the making was already apparent by the first Pinkerton aria, but it is the genius of Puccini’s sensuous music and his librettists Giacosa and Illica that kept this unfolding saga eminently watchable. A real tear-jerker this truly is, and the price of entry, a fraction of real opera tickets (which can be astronomical these days), is a modest outlay.

Madam Butterfly 3D (Sung in Italian with English subtitles) runs every night at 7.30pm (9.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays) at Cathay Cineplexes until 28 April.

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