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Pity Poor Puccini

Forever Faithful: Ying Huang plays the loyal-to-a-fault Cio-Cio San in the new film version of 'Madame Butterfly.'

Frederic Mitterrand's screen adaptation of the opera classic clips wings of 'Madame Butterfly'

By Richard von Busack

IS THERE any other performing art that loses so much on film? Opera is bound to make a rough transition to the screen because its tension comes from the live performance, with the human voices straining to achieve the inhuman. The broad gestures and contorted face of an opera star, meant to carry the performance to the back rows, turn strange, even risible, in extreme close-up. The French import Madame Butterfly was made at pains not to look stage-bound. It boasts a huge set and some beautiful costumes by Christian Gasc. And yet the film is as free of passion as the music is full of it.

Puccini's famous opera, set in Japan, tells the dolorous tale of 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San, "Butterfly" (Ying Huang), who marries a trifling Yankee Navy officer named Pinkerton (Richard Troxell). Pinkerton considers the marriage a mere formality that must take place before the concubinage begins. He leaves eventually, and for years Butterfly scans the coast waiting for his ship to return. When Pinkerton does comes back, it turns out that not only has he stopped loving her but that he wants one last favor. Butterfly yields obediently and is left both to her swan song and to the cold embrace of her prized possession: the sword with which her father had committed seppuku.

Madame Butterfly is a story of complete self-abnegation, and Butterfly herself exists only as a symbol of fidelity, like a dog. The music and the film are almost separate experiences--how I wished that I'd been somewhere else listening to that music. That Madame Butterfly was a hit in France shows the reverence the French pay even to bad art. Frederic Mitterrand's film is one long tableau vivant, shot with his camera sitting still and not fidgeting, like a good boy. Because of Mitterrand's over-fidelity and a cast of fine singers who happen to be poor pantomimists--Troxell is a remarkably terrible actor--Madame Butterfly is a failed experiment. Mitterrand has screwed the Puccini.

Madame Butterfly (Unrated; 129 min.), directed by Frederic Mitterrand, based on the opera by Puccini, photographed by Philippe Welt and starring Ying Huang and Richard Troxell.

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From the September 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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Copyright © 1996 Metro Publishing, Inc.

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