Television Reviews : A Kabuki ‘Butterfly’ on ‘Great Performances’

With all its borrowings from the classical theater of Japan, Hal Prince’s staging of “Madama Butterfly” (to be telecast tonight at 9 on PBS Channels 28, 15 and 24) is just another stodgy spectacle trying to fake its way to distinction.

In an intermission interview midway through the Lyric Opera of Chicago production Prince describes his use of “watered down” Kabuki stagecraft merely as a diversionary “hook”: “We don’t go very far with it,” he says. “We don’t mean to. After all, it’s not a Japanese play. It’s a play written by an American with a score by an Italian.”

These remarks reveal the superficiality of Prince’s concept, but they don’t begin to suggest the damage that Puccini’s focused and consistent work of music drama sustains from the relentlessly revolving stage and wildly clashing styles of performance that Prince provides.

By now, of course, neo-Expressionist Kabuki flavoring is a cliche in Western classical and operatic theater, so many of Prince’s boldest effects are awfully familiar--the way the costumes of such subsidiary characters as Goro and Yamadori reflect degrees of Westernization (from Prince’s own 1976 neo-Kabuki staging of the musical “Pacific Overtures”) or, in his most climactic innovation, the red ribbons symbolizing blood (from Peter Brook’s legendary 1955 production of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh).


Conductor Miguel Gomez-Martinez shapes a committed and often eloquent account of Puccini’s score, but the principals are seldom strong enough to overcome the directorial distortions. In the title role, poor Anna Tomowa-Sintow wears stark makeup that accentuates her age and weight without making her look a whit less Bulgarian. Overtaxed at range extremes, her singing is often edgy but there is an expressive integrity to it that ultimately outweighs all its imperfections.

Beauty of tone is also conspicuously absent in Peter Dvorsky’s performance as Pinkerton and here no major compensations offset the wiry, strained vocalism. Elena Zilio capably portrays an oddly stern Suzuki and, in his Yankee duds, Florindo Andreolli makes an appropriately smarmy Goro. Richard Stillwell is a commanding, sympathetic Sharpless (though his character seems to age drastically after Act I) but John Del Carlo and Paul Kreider offer nothing but crude Kabuki cartoons as the Bonze and Yamadori.

Under Ken Billington’s plum-colored lighting, the turntable set designed by Clarke Dunham bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the Teahouse of the August Moon. Florence Klotz is responsible for costumes that ruthlessly expose every excess pound or deviation from ideal physical proportions.

Videotaped before an audience, Rodney Greenberg’s TV transcription proves unusually resourceful visually during the long interlude preceding the final scene but the curiously distant recording of the voices greatly weakens the impact of Act I.

The program also will air Saturday at 9 p.m. on Channel 50.