This 3D converted opera leaves you yearning for the real thing.
Filmed during a live performance at the Royal Opera House in 2011, Julian Napier’s Madam Butterfly 3D is now not only archived and forever immortalised on film, but somewhat troublingly reconstituted and reconfigured through the 3D effects which were employed throughout the filming of the production.
Generally, it is well known that the 3D format is best suited to material which involves unequivocal spectacle, inviting the viewer to sink further into the immersive qualities of the medium. Yet, while the opera itself contains elements of visual excess, it is more meditative and nuanced than any other recent blockbuster subjected to this form of enhancement and therefore this incarnation of the production seems, at best, redundant and ill advised.
The problems with Napier’s production are two-fold: firstly, the expectations of anyone paying to see a 3D ‘movie’ overwhelm the other aesthetic pleasures of the film and undermine its elegant beauty; second, the entire experience distorts the staging of the opera and the positioning of its subjects, distracting viewers both from the score and the world class performances (James Valenti and Liping Zhang).
Unfortunately, the film leaves one yearning for the real thing, as it were, seated at the ROH with the all of the staging and performances intact and devoid of camera work, editing and, most of all, the distraction of 3D glasses resting uncomfortably on the end of one’s nose.
The cruellest irony which cannot be avoided is the fact that the set itself channels the floating world of Japanese art, employing simple screens and lines of movement which evoke the fluid, yet austere tonality of traditional ink drawings or wood block prints: namely, 2D graphics central to Japanese aesthetics.
Converted into 3D, the stage is at odds with its original purpose and the viewer is compelled to counter such an imbalance with a probing, and unnecessary, analysis of each of the lead performer’s bodies, their 3D hands, their 3D heads, distorted by the invariable flatness of everything else on view.
Despite the problems of Napier’s production, the opera itself or, rather, at least its 3D ‘shadow’, is certainly of the highest quality and the score is beautifully performed by the orchestra (conducted by Paul Wynne Griffiths). Valenti is a perfect Pinkerton, tender, persuasive, sentimental and foolish; Zhang is a delicate and authentic Cio-Cio San. Even the hardest critic would find it difficult not to be moved by this eternally profound and elegant love story, most famous for its ‘Humming Chorus’ and Butterfly’s haunting grace during the solo ‘un bel dì vedremo’ (One Fine Day).
Valenti’s matinee idol screen presence might attract film audiences to Napier’s production and the overall quality of the production will no doubt secure the attention of those who missed out on last year’s live performance. Indeed, Napier’s version will be a cheaper option than any of the best seats at the ROH and its release across cinemas in the UK might more generally help to combat the elitism of opera and the problem of its exclusiveness; for this reason alone it has been a worthwhile project.
However, it remains difficult to comprehend the use of the 3D format here without unfairly dismissing it as a marketing tool which brings new audiences to the opera experience. 3D film can be exciting and enriching, but here Madame Butterfly is pinned within the 2D world of floating images, stream-lined shapes and shadows which she alone can kinetically, and poetically, transform, an art that the 3D format has yet to fully perfect.
The best seats in London’s Royal Opera House, and for a slashed-down price.
A beautiful production hamstrung by its 3D enhancements.
3D glasses: they hurt your nose.