Translating opera into film requires a director who can grasp the narrative stripped of music, then come up with a visual strategy that sustains the emotional resonances and rhythms of the music. Few reach the standard set by Ingmar Bergman and Joseph Losey in their thoughtful and visually imaginative adaptations of two of Mozart's masterpieces. This version of Puccini's enduring tearjerker falls short of that level, but it has enough virtues to appeal to more than opera buffs. Foremost is the unobtrusive cinematography, which discreetly observes the tragic misalliance of a barely pubescent geisha named Cio-Cio-San and a callow American naval officer in turn-of-the-century Nagasaki. The camera glides from singer to singer, room to room, interior to exterior, nearly matching the ebb and flow of the lush, sensuous score. For once the casting of the female leads is believable and unpatronizing: Ying Huang, a young soprano from Shanghai, plays Butterfly, and mezzo-soprano Ning Liang plays Suzuki, her maid and confidante. Neither is yet a big-league singer--in fact, Huang admits that her small voice precludes her ever singing Butterfly onstage--but both have gorgeous voices that convey emotion with conviction. The supporting cast is headed by tenor Richard Troxell, whose Pinkerton is heartily sung if a tad too caddish in the love duets. Baritone Richard Cowan is sturdy in the role of Sharpless. Director Frederic Mitterrand, a nephew of the late French president, shows a good feel for period details (the film was shot mostly in a re-created village on the Tunisian coast), though the archival footage of Japanese city life a century ago that fills the screen during a long orchestral interlude is a jarring bit of self-conscious stylization in an otherwise conservative effort. Conductor James Conlon coaxes a top-notch performance from the Orchestre de Paris and Radio France Chorus. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 22 through 28.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): movie still.