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Posts Tagged ‘Puccini’s Madama Butterfly’

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.

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Although Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is said to be one of those operas in which everything depends on the singer taking the title role, the truth is that most of us have almost invariably seen sopranos who are not ideally cast from one reason or another. However, if the production is interesting, the conductor knows how to play the right effects in the score, the tenor is congenial and the soprano is a good actress, has lovely enough a voice and is intelligent enough to build an interpretation, one calls it a successful Butterfly. But what if you finally have a singer born to sing this role, but nothing else – can you call this success?

 

Chinese soprano Hui He is the real thing. Since the days of Mirella Freni, no other soprano in my experience evokes such girlishness, such naiveté and such loveliness while filling the hall with streams of bright and creamy sounds. The comparison with Freni is no coincidence – as the great Italian soprano, Hui He has an exemplary control of passaggio offering an ideal focused, crystalline and spontaneous sound in her middle and low registers. However, rich and true as her acuti are, they could be a little bit easier and forwarder. This does not affect her ability to spin exquisite shimmering mezza voce at will. When it comes to interpretation, sometimes one feels that efficiency rather than dramatic engagement is the keyword. I would have to see her in another role to make my opinion – for Butterfly, the reserve sounds authentically “Japanese” somehow. Something that deserved a bit more work is her Italian pronunciation. Although it is clear that she understands the text and offers now and then clever word-pointing, her enunciation should be crisper and more idiomatic. Some will point out that she does not look a 15-year-old girl – a problem shared by many sopranos in this repertoire. Although overweight teenagers are growing in number, audiences are only convinced by the sylphlike variety. To make things worse, kimonos are unkind to curves. Nevertheless, Hui He knows how to move graciously and, in her understated way, is quite acceptable in the acting department.

 

The rest of the cast does not reach these standards. Dmytro Popov’s baritonal tenor is desperately in need of high harmonics. His voice sounds bottled up and his high register simply does not flow or project into the hall. The tone itself is pleasant and rich, but do not expect nothing new during the performance – note one sounds exactly like all the others until the end of the opera. Ulrike Helzel’s mezzo soprano is extremely pleasant and she sings with good taste and imagination, but the role requires a voice a bit larger than hers. Veteran Georg Tichy is an engaged Sharpless, but his baritone sounds a bit worn these days.

 

In any case, even if the cast were really bad – or even if it were excellent – one would never be able to redeem this Butterfly from Juraj Valcuha’s indigent conducting. The catastrophe did not take long to be noticed – it would be impossible to realize Puccini’s creative use of counterpoint in the opening bars, so tangled and grayish the orchestra sounded there. When no famous tune was in sight, everything seemed shabby, uninteresting, lacking forward movement. The performance was decidedly below the level of the Deutsche Oper. In some sense, it was perfectly matched to Pier Luigi Samaritani’s 1987 production. Two short moments of inspiration apart, it just looked like the high-school-pantomime-version of Madama Butterfly. I know that the plot does not allow much creativity – but, once you decide to be “traditional”, please focus on detail. My advice – get a flight to Tokyo and visit the Kabuki Theatre. They know everything about doing a great job without breaking with very old and complex traditions.

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Although Anthony Minghella’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly still seems unconvincing to my eyes (small-scaled for a theatre as big as the Met and often clumsy in its attempt for cleanliness), the musical experience proved to be significantly improved in its 2007 incarnation.

The cast remains light-voiced to the music, but conductor Mark Elder showed understanding of how to accomodate singers’ needs without sacrificing his orchestra. The gentler string playing helped otherwise to create a colouristic effect with richer woodwind sound. The brass section has seen better days, though – even Puccini’s quote of their national anthem did not seem to inspire these musicians to produce something decent. Comparing Patricia Racette to Cristina Gallardo-Domas in this production’s title role is rather enlightening. Both are lyric sopranos whose voices resent loud and high writing (something a lirico spinto would not need to complain about). Gallardo-Domas’s sound is basically lighter and brighter (therefore, more immediately convencing for a 15-year-old character). However, she is the kind of singer who lets herself be overwhelmed by the dramatic charge (especially in such an opera) and although there is no doubt about her commitment, the sound was often strained and laborious.

Patricia Racette’s creamy soprano, however, is handled with great technical skill. Her low and medium register are natural and pleasant, her phrasing is varied and subtle, the occasional mezza voice properly floated and if many a dramatic passage resulted rather colourless tone, she could produce stunning crescendo effects in climatic top notes. If this intelligent and sensitive artist’s portrayal does not rank with the great Butterflies from the past (is there any exemplary Cio-cio-san around these days?), it is probably because all her skill cannot replace the proper effect a brighter and more concentrated sound would produce in this music (yes, as far as lyric sopranos are concerned, I am speaking of Victoria de los Angeles).

The only remainder from the original cast, Maria Zifchak proved her Suzuki gained intensity since last year and if she could work a bit more on her Italian, she would have been excellent. Roberto Alagna is far from the most musicianly or elegant among tenors, but his voice is often pleasant on the ears – and he has the today rare ability of giving life to the text, making for a particularly friendly approach to this rather unlikable role. That said, his high notes were mostly congested and unflowing. I wonder how he can sing Manrico this way. Finally, Luca Salsi’s forceful baritone and crispy delivery of the Italian text were most welcome.

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