The prospect of sitting through a performance of Butterfly is not something I tend to anticipate with relish. Returning to it after a near five year hiatus it proved to me that it is a score I cannot stand. Full of rather out of date ideas of “the orient” and with paper thin characters that do not excite me very much. It would be foolish not to acknowledge Puccini’s skill into interweaving melodies throughout the score in a very sophisticated manner, for instance the crescendo of the love duet from Act One gets recalled many times while Butterfly reminisces while everyone around her do not believe that Pinkerton will return. But my main objection about the work as a whole is the obvious, blatant emotional manipulation he attempts, the crude black and white world of good and evil, Butterfly vs Pinkerton.
For an opera of the verismo persuasion it is lacking the very fundamental trait, of having a more realistic outlook. The opposite ends of morality collide in the most simplistic manner. Are we to believe that she is an innocent victim to the predatory hands of an American? It all just feels sordid and unsophisticated. A story that is underlined by a misogynistic, patriarchal culture clash fails to create ripples of excitement.
This production is also very static and with the least interesting set I have seen in a while. A long winding promenade lined with semi transparent fabric replicating the aesthetic of a traditional Japanese house and with only one set of doors in the centre (which curiously, when closed, locked into a popped up position attracting unwanted attention and adding a bit of unintended hilarity) didn’t quite help set the stage for the tragic story. This opera gives the possibility to explore the indoor/outdoor connection and to take advantage more of transparency as a story telling tool. But here the set was stolid and passive and while the body movement side of the personenregie was an interesting aspect (by Namiko Gahier-Ogawa) but the direction overall seemed lost and indistinct.
Some may interpret it as a production that doesn’t meddle with Puccini’s drama but to me it just seemed to under-sell it due to the lack of spectacle. The costuming was equally dull, redolent with the usual east/west clichés. Pinkerton in navy uniform and profusion of gold buttons, Butterfly and Suzuki in wigs looking as soft as crude stone carvings and kimonos. Also the make up let Yamadori down, his baldness looking shiny and latex laden in contrast to the clear naturalistic streak through the show.
The iconic use of the American flag, brought on stage by Pinkerton in Act One to cover his case of bourbon, later becoming the symbol of his absence as she places it on his empty arts and crafts chair. In the devastating finale she tears a piece of it and covers her son’s eyes as he sits on his father’s chair his back turned to his mother committing Jigai. A very powerful last tableaux that made it obvious what Durpels can do if given a convincing situation to act out.
The singing was of very high standard. Particularly Anne Sophie Duprels and Patricia Orr had a wonderful stage chemistry each sang with deep conviction and emotional sincerity. Cannot think of a more suited voice for Butterfly than our leading lady, she has a timbre made for Puccini with a gorgeous plush sound accompanied by a clipped sharpness that enunciates every word to its best advantage her Che tua madre dovrà was chilling with a fine balance between dignity and deep desperation. Many singers will go on a barrage of histrionics erring on the side of vulgarity but Duprels was perfectly judged and made the night into a most memorable one. Shame that Joseph Wolverton despite his beautifully bright timbre, the delivery in his upper register was a bit pinched and his acting a little too plain, in total contrast to Duprels. We were not shown much behind the arrogant, unsophisticated façade. But the casting of a more mature Pinkerton made him more of the revolting sex tourist Illica and Giacosa are describing and insinuating in the libretto.
The Sharpless of David Stephenson was strongly voiced even though he gave more the impression of an English baritone trying too hard to sound more Italianate. Sometimes pushing too hard and sounding blustery. But his involvement with the character at an emotional level was evident. Looking forward to seeing him sing Macbeth for Scottish Opera next March, can imagine him a much better match for Verdi’s denser writing.
The supporting roles were performed to a high standard, with the standouts being the pantomime pimp of a Goro by Robert Burt and the alluringly voiced and apologetically distant Kate Pinkerton of Chloe Hinton. Manlio Benzi’s conducting was swift and forceful moving along the action to its crushing conclusion.
But the evening had one towering performance, that one of Duprels. Who despite my misgivings on Puccini’s musical language and subject matter gave a stunningly believable Cio-Cio San, lithe in body, economical in gestures and overall movement but with luscious vocal supplies that lifted this production to a much higher level. Her good taste and decorum made a character that is pathetic as it is loving and betrayed. Selfish in her lack of acceptance of change and yet shame claiming her life. A level of complexity that interweave drama, poetry and music to a seductive mix, only possible through the alchemic power of opera.
Some tweets from the evening
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