'Butterfly' Flutters Onto the Big Screen

Frdric Mitterand, nephew of Franois, delivers impeccable version of Puccini opera

People who think multiculturalism is strictly a modern phenomenon should think about opera for a moment.

Librettists have roamed the world in search of stories and characters, and composers have thought little of altering their works to suit local customs in lands where they might find audiences.

Opera films have continued this tradition, and the new film adaptation of "Madame Butterfly" is a fine example.

Set in Nagasaki, Japan, a century ago, it offers the fascinating spectacle of American and Japanese characters singing in Italian with Tunisian scenery in the background - all in a production directed by Frdric Mitterand, nephew of Franois Mitterand, France's former president.

Do these mixed ingredients hold up convincingly, or do they collapse into an overcooked international pudding?

The news is good: Like countless versions of Puccini's masterpiece, this "Madame Butterfly" emerges as a treat for eye and ear alike. This is partly because opera itself is a gloriously mongrelized art form, stitching words, music, scenery, and stagecraft into combinations that can scale the heights of human emotion even as they proudly flaunt the very artificiality of their conventions.

Turning to the story of "Madame Butterfly," as always it makes up in poignancy what it lacks in complexity. Japan has opened itself to the outside world for the first time, and a visiting American sailor named Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton has taken advantage of a highly dubious custom by buying a 15-year-old bride for temporary companionship.

Disregarding the advice of a thoughtful American diplomat, he refuses to consider the seriousness of his new wife's commitment to what she sees as a sacred union between them.

Eventually, he abandons her. She longs for his return while caring for their newborn child, and the climax - a reunion more bitter than sweet - leads to a finale as heart-rending as any the opera world has to offer.

If a contemporary Hollywood producer thought up this tale, fraught with everything from adultery and betrayal to teen sex and suicide, it might well carry an R rating. Sony Classical is releasing Mitterand's movie with no rating, which makes sense given the picture's classical pedigree and its status as an "art film" aimed at high-toned theaters rather than malls and multiplexes. In the end, it's a profoundly moral fable, moreover, pointing up the wages of sin without indulging a moment's worth of explicitness or exploitation.

Already a great hit in Europe, the movie has been impeccably produced by Mitterand and his many collaborators. Among the most important are James Conlon, principle conductor of the Paris Opera and a lively interpreter of Puccini's lush music, and director of photography Philippe Welt, whose supple camera-work helps the film appear genuinely cinematic despite its theatrical origins.

The title character is splendidly sung by Ying Huang, a young Chinese soprano who has done much concertizing but never essayed a full-length opera until now. The hearty Pinkerton is Richard Troxell, of the New York City Opera, and the heroine's loyal servant is Ning Liang, a soulful mezzo. Richard Cowan is equally compelling as the melancholy consul. Conductor Conlon leads the Orchestre de Paris and the Radio France chorus.

All of this said, it must be added that despite its beauty and multicultural variety, this "Madame Butterfly" does not represent the opera-film genre at its most resourceful. Opera is rooted so deeply in artifice and convention that naturalistic productions always seem contradictory at their core. They strive for a realism that's hopelessly at odds with the sight of heavily costumed people singing at each other while invisible instruments pump away. Generally speaking, grand opera is best served by stylized forms of cinema, as in Ingmar Bergman's zesty version of "The Magic Flute" and Hans-Jrgen Syberberg's moody "Parsifal," for two very different examples.

Still, a conservative yet conscientious effort like the new "Madame Butterfly" can do wonders for spreading the good name of opera beyond the high-priced halls where live productions are usually performed.

Also helpful is the efficiency of movie-style subtitles, which make the Italian libretto as accessible as the performances that bring it to life.

Mitterand's movie has already won two Csars, the equivalent of Academy Awards, from the French film industry. May it fare as well on Oscar night next year.

*'Madame Butterfly' has not been rated. It contains adult situations including infidelity and suicide.

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