Moffo's Exquisite Butterfly.
Hands down, this is easily the finest thing I’ve ever seen from Moffo. With almost no prior professional opera experience, Moffo gives a performance that would be hard to equal in every area of this difficult role. Without a bit of Japanese-style make up, the young soprano moves, sings and creates a Cio Cio San that one cannot imagine bettered – at least I couldn’t (imagine it, that is!).
Both Un bel di and Che tua madre are stunning and punch up the dramatic without overdoing it. Speaking of not overdoing it, Moffo never oversings and, in fact, presents Un bel di almost as if whispering a confidence to Suzuki. The end of the love duet is capped beautifully with Moffo’s ecstatic heroine collapsing backwards into Pinkerton’s arms in as romantic a gesture as has been captured on film.
Opera films from the 50's could frequently be laughable (though endearingly so, but here, there are, in fact, a number of incredible directorial choices both innovative and illuminating, and I say this despite having seen more Butterfly’s than a net would hold (Annette who?) At the start of Act II, we see Butterfly lying on her stomach reading or writing something in Japanese characters, looking every bit the bored-out-of-her mind teenager. It lasts only a minute yet this simple action deepens and fleshes out this complex character, adding a slightly comical note while endearing this Cio Cio San to us even more, if such a thing were possible.
The most touching business occurs during Butterfly's all night vigil. At the very beginning of the Humming Chorus, Moff's Butterfly unwraps Pinkerton’s ring and, in a magnificent dumb show worthy of the finest silent screen actresses, Moffo’s face and features both glow and grow with womanly intensity until she is ultimately swept away by all emotion, yet keeps much of it inside and we somehow see and sense this in a performance both infinitely delicate yet powerful. Cio Cio sand then winds her way back to the bridge path on which she walked to her wedding, settles there and remains alone, away from her child and Suzuki. As Puccini's score signals the early morning sounds, the camera reveals Suzuki and Trouble, inside, still asleep on their cushions. Suzuki rises and as the fantastic score begins sweeping all away in joyous intensity, she begins running frantically, pulling up all of the shades in a sort of deconstruction of their home, flooding it with light exposing the myriad flowers still strewn wildly about. Stepping outside she discovers Butterfly, still kneeling on the bridge where she has spent the night alone, waiting. This is pure lump in your throat stuff, folks and Moffo - even not singing a note - is absolutely amazing. Another marvelous touch occurs at the end of the story, as we watch Butterfly crawling, those flowers to welcome Pinkerton caught up in her hair as she dies. Every gesture, every expression came off with a spontaneity from one who believed she was Cio Cio San. I certainly did.
Then there’s Pinkerton. Unfortunately, Renato Cioni, looking rather handsome and not embarrassing himself too terribly as an actor, offers the roughest voiced, most inelegantly phrased Pinkerton I can recall ever encountering. He sort of shrieks his music throughout with his high notes showing a particularly dreadful technique: a flattening out of vibrato creating an ungodly, painful white sound - the opposite of what anyone wants in Puccini, and certainly not right for Pinkerton. At least he looks good and the director keeps him away after the suicide.
Miti Truccato Pace takes the prize as perhaps the best acted and most sympathetic Suzukis to ever have sung the role, at least on screen. Marvelously touching and in perfect harmony with Moffo's heroine.
Afro Poli is a thoughtful, old school Sharpless, older than usual, but richly voiced and pointing up all of his music with actorly attention.
I've read many complaints about the picture and sound quality of this film which, quite frankly I don't understand. This was a live telecast from January 24, 1956 and we’re lucky to even have it around, in ANY quality, but honestly, I thought the transfer used by VAI to be outstanding. Still, people still seem to think it should look and sound like something from Lucasfilms!