1995, NR, 129 min. Directed by Frederic Mitterand. Starring Ying Huang, Richard Troxell, Richard Cowan, Ning Liang, Music Conducted By James Conlon, Performed By The Orchestre De Paris.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Nov. 29, 1996
Now that America's 25- to 40-year-olds have embraced en masse such old-school cultural sacraments as hard liquor, Vegas, muscle cars, and Betty Page-inspired fashions, the time may be right for our next step toward full solidarity with the AARP generation. I'm speaking, of course, of opera appreciation. With this faithful stage-to-film transfer of Giacomo Puccini's beloved weepfest, director Mitterand offers a timely and cost-effective (no formal evening wear required) intro to the universe where even a statement such as “You must be hot after walking uphill all that way” is belted out with gored-ox volume and intensity. The story is familiar to even those of us who couldn't name 10 operas at gunpoint. In 19th-century Japan, the teenaged bride Cio-Cio-San (Ying), aka Butterfly, foolishly takes her arranged marriage with U.S. Navy officer Ben Pinkerton (Troxell) to heart. She pays the price when he shortly abandons her for a more “appropriate” spouse back in the States as she, unknowing, stands faithful vigil in her house overlooking Nagasaki harbor. Mitterand, cousin of the late French president, mostly resists revisionist urges to juice up the content dealing with racism, sexism, and colonialism. It's obvious enough that Pinkerton is demeaning Butterfly even as he crows to the local American consul about his intended's “porcelain-figure” beauty. We know that, despite his wedding night declarations of love, he's really just renting this woman-child during his exotic Far East idyll. And, of course, we know that before it's all over, Butterfly, played with whole-souled commitment by Chinese popular singer Ying, is going to shatter all known records for protracted suffering and humiliation. These events have a political context (so does everything, right?) but they aren't inherently political any more than the tragedies of Aeschylus and Shakespeare. Butterfly's elements are timeless ones: trust and betrayal; love's power to exalt or destroy; the question of whether romantic love is a blessing from the gods or a form of clinical insanity. But I'm getting carried away here. The essence of Madame Butterfly is not really its narrative -- which boils down to poor Butterfly suffering the emotional equivalent of the Rodney King beatdown -- but the liquid beauty of that rapturous, heart-melting music. Call it kitsch if you like, but haven't we all pretty much made our peace with kitsch by now, even conceded that it's often a label misapplied to any unguarded expression of deep feeling? Mitterand has taken flak for refusing to deconstruct or reinvent this cultural monolith or to offer viewers more than the surface elements of soap opera pathos and visual and auditory beauty. But at this point, it takes more courage to recognize that reveling in pure esthetic pleasure can be glorious as well as decadent. Chalk another one up for grandma and grandpa.