An increasingly common phenomenon is the opportunity to watch a recording of a live show within a cinema. This was my first encounter.
Viewing a live performance from the confines of a cinema alters the experience much more than I anticipated: I expected to be robbed of a few factors that are special to live performance, as the ability to nominate specific areas of focus during a live performance is something I have always enjoyed. In film, the camera dictates each frame instead of documenting the entire scene. Essentially, the limited medium of cinema is in danger of robbing live performance of some of its magic.
For a story of this magnitude, Sydney Harbour proves to be a more than fitting backdrop. The establishing aerial shots that open the film are breathtaking and provide an invitation into the spectacle that is live opera. The camera caresses the mellow water of the harbour and gently zooms in to focus on the botanical gardens, finally settling on the vibrant green stage (designed by Alfons Flores). The time-lapse, documentary-style footage of the audience entering the venue creates a sense of anticipation, the absence of which would have perhaps soured the experience. The cinema audience are, thankfully, allowed a sense of the entire performance. Although a minor aspect of the package, it is certainly a welcome one and separates the contents from an average cinema experience.
Madame Butterfly’s story is a tragic one and it is beautifully captured in the performance of soprano Hiromi Omura. In the first act, all the preconceptions that the Japanese teenage bride has about her position in society, worth as an individual and future prospects as a geisha are fractured and rearranged. With the aid of a wealthy American naval officer, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, she gathers the courage to step forth and prove herself a devoted wife. This comes at the expense of her family, proving to be momentarily devastating yet, foreseeably, collateral worthy of the predicted outcome. Butterfly and Pinkerton swirl around each other, promising one another the world, and the first act closes in a fervent display of love, marriage and fireworks. The film version allows a sense of intimacy; moments grow more personal purely because of our encroaching proximity. For this, cinema audiences can be thankful.
There is a drastic tonal shift in acts two and three as Madame ‘Pinkerton’ Butterfly faces a new set of challenges. Her grand illusions of prosperity and respect have been shattered by Pinkerton’s reckless abandonment. The vivacious green lawn of Act I is transformed into a bleak, shallow house that depicts Butterfly’s turmoil. The footage post-intermission allows the cinema audience to witness the swift work of the Australian cranes as they methodically work to transform the stage, again inviting us to be a part of the live spectacle.
The Spanish creative team behind the opera, La Fura del Baus, realise a beautiful, modern Madame Butterfly that is lifted into the realm of the exceptional thanks to the stunning habitat they plant their production in. Although the two media of live performance and a cinema screening are galaxies apart, cinema proves to be a worthy runner-up venue to showcase such productions.
Madame Butterfly was screened live in the UK on 18 September. For more information, see the Cinema Live website.