Once when I showed a video of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s Madama Butterfly to a Japanese friend, she would say “eeeh… that’s so strange” every 30 seconds. As I had never seen any Japanese production of Puccini’s Japanese opera, I thought that Tamiya Kuriyama’s 2005 staging for the New National Theatre could be a good opportunity to check if the Western stagings I had previously seen would look so different in comparison. Well, I am glad to see that European directors are not terribly off the mark. The big picture this evening was quite similar to what I had previously experienced in New York and in Berlin. Of course, there was a plethora of tiny details that made an important cumulative effect, but I guess those are only noticeable once you’ve lived in Japan. As it is, Kuriyama does not try to relate this to any form of Japanese theatre or any other Japanese traditional art. The scenery is stylized in an almost detached way – Butterfly’s house has no walls but for some shouji upstage, you know that her wedding takes place in autumn for the kouyou leaves on the floor and that Pinkerton comes back in spring for the sakura that replaces them. Other than this, costumes and props are quite “Japanese”.
If someone is responsible for some atmosphere here this is conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, who has done a splendid job in her symphonic approach, good ear for color effects, eschewal of sentimentality and a sense of theatre that has nothing to do with gimmickry. The Tokyo Symphony showed itself at its most engaged and the always excellent choristers offered a haunting humming chorus. Ms. Wilson is a conductor I would like to hear again in an opera house. She was lucky to have Alexia Voulgaridou in the title role. Although the part is a bit on the heavy side for her (the first part of act II found her a bit tired and she went off steam in her big aria, for instance), her velvety, floating soprano, incapable of a shrill sound, has the necessary youthful tone and morbidezza for this role. She has obviously studied Mirella Freni’s recording for Karajan and was able to produce on stage the famous Italian soprano’s vulnerability, congeniality and sincerity. In spite of the occasional awkward turn of phrase, this was an inspired and touching performance, helped by the Bulgarian soprano’s ideal physique and reasonable acting abilities. It is sad that a more persuasive Pinkerton could not be found: Mikhail Agafonov squeezes his high notes and is not intonation’s best friend. Tomoko Obayashi’s dark-toned and well-focused mezzo was ideally employed for Suzuki. Furthermore, she could produce a less two-dimensional characterization of a role often restricted to cardboard level. Eijiro Kai too was an above-average Sharpless. His tone has a pleasant, warm sound and he is capable of nuance.