Rock-a-bye your baby with a pentatonic melody

It seems almost comical to think now but the designer-director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who died in 1988, was at one time considered the height of regie-theatre scandal.

Long before Kupfer, Herheim, and Bieito, Ponnelle was doing things like staging Wagner’s Dutchman as the dream of The Steersman, the minor character in the opening (gasp), giving Santuzza a baby bump in Cavalleria (a slew of gray-haired ladies in the founder’s circle just fainted), and leaving Liu’s dead body onstage for the remainder of the last act of Turandot and then revealing the Principessa in a hot pink negligée after Calaf’s kiss (I can still hear the critics convulsing from here). 

Yet for all of his transgressions I think he was at heart a neo-traditionalist. His Mozart and Rossini productions, which ringed the globe from Salzburg to San Francisco, were most often performed in the fashions of the composer’s era with sets that looked like surviving architectural rubble. He favored a muted palette of whites, grays and blacks. His costume designs always used the simplest means to manifest character, a length of rope tying the hands to convey slavery, and there was never any trouble divining who were the villains among the cast.

Some of his productions are still on the boards today. The San Francisco Opera revived his Carmen (which is a corker) as recently as 2011 and his Cenerentola this year. His Tristan und Isolde for Bayreuth in 1981 is still considered a high point in that work’s history and is available on DVD.

But Ponnelle was also an exceedingly gifted filmmaker and he documented quite a few of his own productions for television including a stunning version of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito that was filmed amongst the ruins of the Roman Forum and Hadrian’s Villa. Probably his most beloved work is the Madama Butterfly he filmed for German Unitel in 1974 which our friends at Decca have now released on Blu-ray for very the first time.

It’s a unique project for a number of reasons. This was the only time Mirella Freni portrayed Puccini’s fragile as steel Geisha, excepting a sole Act III for her Met 25th Anniversary Gala in 1991. She always explained it would be too hard on her heart as a mother to play Cio-Cio-San onstage.

Butterfly never figured prominently in the career of conductor Herbert Von Karajan either save for a handful of stage performances and his 1955 recording with La Divina Maria Callas. Karajan also didn’t much cater to working with other directors by the 1970’s. I can’t find any history of Ponnelle staging Butterfly anywhere which is surprising since his conception is so fully formed and brimming with detail and arresting visually.

There has to be a pretty interesting backstory to how this all came about since the cast for Karajan’s Decca recording of 1975 and the soundtrack for this film differ in only one major piece of casting. The studio recording has Luciano Pavarotti as Lt. Pinkerton and the film boasts Placido Domingo in that role.

Careful comparison of the two shows that the only difference in the performances themselves are the parts they participated in. The whole of Act II and the transition to Act III are exactly the same on both media. Nor were either of them “tracked in” later. All of the parts with Pinkerton were recorded afresh for each singer. I can only assume Ponnelle wanted a tenor with a certain physical swagger for the film since vocally Pavarotti is the very epitome of ardor in the studio.

Let us get the ugliness out of the way first. Puccini’s Butterfly lends itself to the most hideous representations of colonialism imaginable and this production is absolutely no exception. Ponnelle embraced the grotesque in his work rather strongly. so no sugar-coating here and much to the contrary. The venerable character tenor Michel Sénéchal as Goro the marriage broker is done up nastier than Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s horse-teeth and all. Indeed quite a few of the peripheral characters, Cio-Cio-San’s mother and members of her family, come off as freakish. But then in the long musical transition to the last Act Ponnelle does a veritable fantasia on stale American iconography with Cio-Cio-San imaging her place amongst her new family members Uncle Sam, Whistler’s Mother, and Buffalo Bill just to prove that cynical pendulum swings in the other direction as well.

Freni proves herself here to be an earnest and uncomplicated actress, surprisingly good at conveying the tsunamis of emotion her character is experiencing without ever appearing calculated or mawkish. She was 38 years old at the time of this production and vocally at the peak of her powers as proved by her exquisitely effortless ascent to the d-flat on her entrance. She modulates easily between the most gentle piano utterances to fortes throbbing with fervor. Her lip-synching is excellent and she’s very good at giving the appearance of the physical effort of singing.

Christa Ludwig as her housemaid Suzuki fares slightly worse, not that either of these women stand a Chinaman’s chance of being mistaken for Japanese, but her cherubic face betrays her to be no more Asian than Sacher-Torte. Vocally she’s an embarrassment of riches in a role no one would dream of wasting her in onstage and partners beautifully with Freni in the Flower Duet.

Robert Kerns as the Counsul Sharpless isn’t as dramatically vivid as he could be and his baritone, while sonorous and agreeable, leaves slight impression.

Domingo is four years younger than Freni and it’s easy to forget how handsome he was back in the day. A little chubby around the middle perhaps, but he easily fits into the louche but affable character of Lt. Pinkerton. His remorse in the final act may be a tad overwrought but his participation in the finale, where Ponnelle literally goes for the jugular, is faultless. Vocally he’s practically ideal without being particularly individual.

Karajan marshalls the Vienna Philharmonic here. This was Domingo’s first experience working with Karajan and, maybe due to nerves, he mostly cruises along with his trusty, two-speed, mezzo forte/forte combination. Perhaps for that reason the accompaniment just doesn’t seem to reach the ideal level of exaltation in the love duet.

Elsewhere Karajan’s interpretation veers from the “hush, they’ll hear us” Viennese style to a veritable orchestral annihilation at the introduction of Cio-Cio San’s child, Trouble. In one of the longest (read: slowest) interpretations ever, he is.however, unfailingly attentive to his soprano’s needs and gives her loving support throughout.

The real star here is unquestionably Ponnelle as director and designer. Once again the muted color palette and even though the set is decidedly studio bound it’s used strategically to great effect. In the entrance of Cio-Cio San he employs some very subtle cinematographic techniques including a “Hitchcock” dolly-zoom.

Ponnelle even utilizes some lyrics as interior monologues and the soundtrack is slightly manipulated with reverb to underline these points. His pessimism is especially evident during the wedding fiasco and the aforementioned dream sequence.

Because this was shot in the 1.33 aspect ratio with a square frame there are those among us who may be tempted to fit the picture to our 1.85 televisions using the ratio zoom feature on the monitor but this would be a grave error. Ponnelle, not unlike Stanley Kubrick, uses single point perspective like a proscenium to frame the action and to change the ratio literally alters the dramatic impact of many of the scenes.

There’s nothing in the packaging talking about the transfer process to Blu-ray but it is stunning, far cleaner than the laserdisc or the two releases on DVD. The image is crisp and all dust has been cleaned from what was apparently a newly minted print from the negative.

Flesh tones are true and light levels, particularly blacks, are exceptionally good considering the age of the film elements. This is the transfer to video this work has deserved all along and it’s incredibly clean without appearing sterile. The DTS mastering favors the voices over the orchestra; I’m sure Karajan is gnashing his teeth over that somewhere.

Ponelle’s film of Rigoletto has already gotten the same treatment apparently and Universal Classics should really start upgrading some of the other vintage titles in their catalog to Blu-ray now. The can begin with the Boulez Ring, the Ponnelle Tristan and even the old Met Ring production which all had hideously sloppy transfers to home video.

If you’re a fan of this exceptional film and haven’t moved over to Blu-ray this release alone is reason enough to justify the expense since many players can be bought for under $100. now with all the streaming bells and whistles.