Classrooms can be amazing places for discovery, especially for the teacher. Sometimes we can’t anticipate what develops right in front of us.
Not long ago I showed two contrasting DVD versions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly to my opera class.
Having talked about the differences between theatrical realism and verismo –not at all the same things—we began with Frédéric Mitterrand’s 1995 film version. Starring soprano Ying Huang and tenor Richard Troxell, this is a very handsome version that seems to stop at nothing to create its illusion of reality. Although Ying Huang is not Japanese, she looks enough like Cio-cio-san to help us believe in this tale of east meets west.
At the other extreme is Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1975 production originally made for TV. Starring Mirella Freni & Placido Domingo, this is a very theatrical approach.
I thought I’d be demonstrating the ways that different interpretations offer us variety, encouraging us to revel in the divergence we encounter between different directors, and the pleasures we could take.
Instead we were confronted with some of the limits of verisimilitude. Richard Troxell’s Pinkerton is shown up close in Mitterand’s film. With each subsequent viewing I feel more and more troubled with the character of Pinkerton, surely one of the least heroic leading roles ever to emerge from Puccini’s pen. While he sings well, Troxell is trapped by Mitterand’s framing of the role. For those who seek realism, Mitterand seems to spare no expense, but I am not sure that the result makes the opera more meaningful.
Ponnelle’s approach has many strengths, but in passing it’s worth noting that one of its chief objectives seems to be a kind of rehabilitation of Pinkerton. I’ve never been fond of the character, but nothing could make it so clear as our head-to-head comparison in the classroom, as though Ponnelle wanted us to like our American naval officer. Where the opera pushes him aside after the first act, making Pinkerton almost a bit player –absent in Act II and remorseful but inexorable in Act III—Ponnelle reframes everything around Pinkerton. The opera begins with a surreal flashback of Pinkerton’s frenzied pursuit of Butterfly that concludes the work, as she kills herself.
My favourite moment in Ponnelle’s interpretation is the inventive introduction to the last scene. We see images as if from Butterfly’s dreams, figures moving in the manner of stylized Kabuki figures. Her dream includes her physical (re-)union with Pinkerton, surreal figures associated with the USA (including Uncle Sam & someone resembling Wild Bill Hickok), and a Butterfly who dreams of assimilation, counter-intuitively dressed in western clothing for a change. While this is not by any means a recent film, Ponnelle’s profound images are deep & troubling, calling me back again and again for repeated viewing.
Watching Ponnelle’s work I feel convinced that, contrary to what some people would say, opera scores are far from exhausted, if only directors would seek to explore them more fully.