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The new film of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, directed by Frederic Mitterrand and premiering locally this week at the AFI, is a gorgeous, coffee-table book of a movie. The cast looks great. The scenery—1904 Nagasaki recreated on a stretch of Tunisian coastline and art-directed down to the last lotus blossom—looks even better. Everything about it says “you are there”; that is, until the first Asian character opens his yap and lip-synced Italian opera pours out. Unreality bites. And that’s the problem this spectacle shares with most filmed opera.

Opera and cinema have always made strange bedfellows, a result of all those old-world values butting up against brave-new-world technology, an art all about artifice confronting an art that trades on the illusion of real life recorded. Opera, with its formal conventions, its multiculti grab bag of influences, and a musical style that recedes further from the pop-cultural mainstream every day, makes the chasm between Verdi and vérité a hard one to bridge. Opera needs to be rethought for a different medium, its outsize emotions and dense layers of musical and poetic information given visual parallels, and all that beefy singing made to seem somehow natural to this new-minted world. More than one pundit has touted MTV as the new face of opera, and it’s no accident that Evita pushed some envelopes by dressing its references to Leni Riefenstahl and Carlos Saura in the trappings of a Madonna videothon.

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Directors of opera-on-film, though, tend to be doggedly literal-minded: air-lifting singers to “authentic” locales to have them do exactly what they’d do onstage, except with more bucks to throw around. The new Butterfly is no different, but at least Mitterrand (nephew of the ex-French prez) puts together a good show. Madame Butterfly, based on David Belasco’s turn-of-the-century Broadway play (and returned to Broadway recently, in a cheap dye-job, as Miss Saigon), tells the story of the geisha Butterfly’s marriage to American Lt. Pinkerton, his abandonment of her, her ostracism from her community, and her ritual suicide after Pinkerton returns with his “real” wife to claim the son he fathered with Butterfly. The opera has long been popular for its blend of big Mediterranean emotion and rarefied Oriental beauty. The latter seems the springboard for the current film. Less lavish than Zeffirelli’s La Traviata or Rosi’s Carmen, this Butterfly is just as savvy as its predecessors when it comes to period detail—not surprising given Mitterrand’s long track record as a documentary filmmaker—and both the director and cinematographer Philippe Welt know how to milk a landscape for big-time oohs and aahs.

Mitterrand is also no slouch at composing shots, emulating Kurosawa’s formality but spicing it up here and there with a little Douglas Sirk—pulling in tight on lovers locked in a clinch, peering dreamily toward the horizon. Occasionally, he’ll hit upon some nice iconography, as when a Japanese flag behind Butterfly isolates her in a lower corner of the frame (the sunrise seeming to radiate from her head), while an unsuccessful suitor remains out of arm’s reach, stiffly perched on horseback. And this director keeps his camera on the move, annihilating any sense of privacy for Butterfly and Pinkerton by ducking around shoji screens to turn up voyeuristic outsiders, ourselves included.

Mitterrand only gets into trouble when he tries to be innovative.The idea to turn Butterfly’s high-priest uncle into a supernatural visitor renders Pinkerton’s breezy dismissal of him pretty ludicrous. Likewise, making the “Flower Duet” into a child’s dream adds nothing to the story, and dropping in historical footage of steamships and Japanese state functions during Butterfly’s long wait for Pinkerton’s return is more distracting than illuminating.

The real coup here is the casting. Mitterrand and conductor James Conlon have made their choices with their eyes as much as their ears, scoring biggest points in the Butterfly of Ying Huang. Twenty-three years old and fresh out of the Shanghai Conservatory, this Chinese lyric soprano with zero experience on stage or screen is Butterfly to the life. Her poise and emotional reticence might seem at odds with Puccini’s robust score, but it suits the character far better than the grandstanding some singers bring to the role, and her sensitivity to dramatic incident in the text counts for much. Her quiet stoicism is set off especially well against the ne’er-do-well charms of Richard Troxell’s Pinkerton, played with a successful mix of down-home ingenuousness and used-car-salesman smiles. The pair manage to find the dangerous erotic charge at the heart of the story—Pinkerton’s leering every time he refers to Butterfly as “child” or “doll” or “plaything” is nicely unnerving—and that rarely comes across when the singers are pushing 60 and weigh as much as a pair of Chevys.

The rest of the cast is solid, if unexceptional, and if their performances rarely exceed the level of good “opera acting,” Mitterrand has the good sense to scale them down for the camera. Vocally, these singers sound barely weighty enough for Donizetti, let alone Puccini, but careful audio balances set the voices well forward and Conlon keeps his singers buoyant with lively tempos and lithe phrasing. The cast’s lightness of delivery is, in some ways, refreshing in a work that sometimes gets way too thick and syrupy in the opera house. Huang is once again the standout, her silvery, girlish tone enchanting and as fine as her acting in creating a convincing 15-year-old geisha. She’s very much worth the price of admission.

So think of a trip to the AFI this week as a cheap night at the opera, with an impossibly attractive cast and scenery writ large…very large. At least you won’t have to lug those damn binoculars.CP