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Kelly Kaduce as Madame Butterfly [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis]
13 Jul 2008

A Brescian Butterfly and a bewildering Hoffman at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

The disastrous 1904 La Scala premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is one of those famous annals of opera which tend to leave today’s audiences perplexed about all the uproar.

Giacomo Puccini: Madame Butterfly, “Brescia” version

Lt. Pinkerton (David Pomeroy); Cio-cio-san (Kelly Kaduce); Suzuki (Jamie Barton); Kate Pinkerton (Lindsay Ammann); Sharpless (Lester Lynch); Goro (Daniel Fosha); The Bonze (David M. Cushing); Prince Yamadori (Elliott Madore); The Imperial High Commissioner (James Ivey); conducted Timothy Long; original production Colin Graham; director E. Reed Fisher; sets Neil Patel; costumes David C. Woolard; musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Chorus. A co-production with Minnesota Opera and Kentucky Opera, with scenery and costumes by Minnesota Opera.

Above: Kelly Kaduce as Madame Butterfly (Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis)

 

Yet like most composers confronted with such a setback, Puccini immediately set to work revising Madame Butterfly. The second version opened three months later in Brescia, this time to resounding acclaim. Puccini, however, modified the score yet again for Parisian audiences in 1906. Although this last rendition is now the most common, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis turned to the Brescian Butterfly for the 2008 summer season. Among other differences, the late Colin Graham stated in an August 2006 director’s note that this version allows the inclusion of scenes which “soften the friction between two cultures and the boorish attitudes of Lt. Pinkerton.” Yet rarely have I seen a Butterfly with such a distasteful Pinkerton. Perhaps unrelated to questions of conflicting versions and revisions, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s 2008 performance of Butterfly succeeded vocally and visually, but left for me a stronger than usual aftertaste of colonialist guilt.

Soprano Kelly Kaduce is a familiar favorite at Opera Theatre after turns in Suor Angelica and last year’s Anna Karenina. In Act I, Kaduce’s Cio-cio-san was sweet, understated, and insecure — all appropriate for the 15 year-old bride. Kaduce’s dulcet voice suits this role well, and lends youthful believability to her interpretation. Kaduce gained some additional scenes in this version, particularly a poignant final confrontation with Sharpless. Her acting appropriately deepened as Act II progressed; although Cio-cio-san’s unshakeable faith in Pinkerton still hinted of adolescent obsessiveness, Kaduce pulled off the culminating death scene with poised and powerful passion.

David Pomeroy sang Pinkerton rather loudly and passionately, with ringing top notes. His tenor projected very well, though he at times lacked dynamic and rhythmic nuance. Good-looking but completely callous, the English text only highlighted Pinkerton’s annoying range of jingoistic bluster and female objectification. Perhaps this takes Butterfly a bit too seriously, but this interpretation certainly emphasized the negative side of the tenor (anti) hero. For those who like a contrite Pinkerton sobbing over his misdeeds, Pomeroy’s performance isn’t for you. The audience seemed to agree, judging by the “joking” boos that Pomeroy received during the bows.

The rest of the cast was vocally solid, with Lindsay Ammann’s Kate Pinkerton getting a bit more to sing than usual given the alternate version. Ammann has a rich mezzo-soprano voice, with good projection in the lower register. Jamie Barton sang Suzuki with a creamy mezzo-soprano and excellent diction, and kicked up the pathos a notch with her devotion to Cio-cio-san. Lester Lynch’s ringing baritone portrayed Sharpless as a man tormented by ethical unease. The orchestra negotiated the difficulties of Puccinian rubato very well, with a few minor ensemble glitches. Margaret Stearns and Colin Graham’s translation eliminated many of the clunky stresses and archaisms of some other English versions.

This Madame Butterfly achieved a beautiful simplicity notably lacking in certain other productions from OTSL this season. The lacquered black floor, the clean lines of the latticed dividers, the simplicity of rice paper and truly gorgeous lighting meshed harmoniously with the flowered kimonos of the Japanese women and the fin-de-siècle attire of the American characters. Some of the furniture in this Butterfly wouldn’t look out of place in an IKEA store, but worked well when paired with the simple props of a tea set or a small devotional altar. Much was made of the movements of the singers themselves. Colin Graham cited the Japanese Kabuki theatrical tradition as his inspiration, where highly polished stages necessitate special styles of walking. All of the “Japanese” characters in this opera moved differently than the Americans, highlighting cultural difference’s role in this tragedy. This was the lasting impression of this production, a well-sung testament to the fact that in opera, love and imperialism don’t mix.


Jacques Offenbach: The Tales of Hoffman, edited by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck.

La Stella/Olympia/Antonia/ Giulietta (Ailyn Pérez, Pamela Armstrong); Hoffman (Garrett Sorenson); Lindorf/Coppélius/Doctor Miracle/Captain Dapertutto (Kirk Eichelberger); the Muse/ Nicklausse (Jennifer Johnson); the spirit of Antonia’s mother (Susan Schafer); Offenbach/Cochenille/Franz/Piticchinaccio (Matthew DiBattista); conducted Stephen Lord; directed Renaud Doucet; sets and costumes André Barbe; translation Stephen Lord; musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Chorus. A co-production in association with Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Colorado.

Hoffman2.pngAilyn Pérez as Antonia in The Tales of Hoffman. (Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis)
If Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s production of Madame Butterfly embodied the simplistic aesthetic, the 2008 production of Jaques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman offered quite the opposite perspective. Obviously Hoffman’s plot is convoluted in and of itself, with the tenor’s love interests incarnated as a single soprano but known as Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/ Stella. The villains Lindorf/Coppélius/Doctor Miracle/Captain Dapertutto are also envisioned as a single bass-baritone entity, with a mezzo doing double duty as the Muse / Nicklausse. Offenbach’s death in 1880 likewise left the score a labyrinthine mess of sketches, revisions, and too much material for musicologists to resist. Literally thousands of pages of Hoffman have come to light in recent decades, all leading to newer versions of this opera, which will in all likelihood never reach a “stable” state. Stage director and costume designer Renaud Doucet and André Barbe admit that “ if everything found so far were to be performed in its entirety, the opera would be endless. This might satisfy the scholars but exhaust the patience of any audience!” Yet all this confusion somehow became a mantra for this new production. Doucet and Barbe ask: if Hoffman is a labyrinth, what if Offenbach himself is the one misleading us through it, hiding parts of the score and even inserting himself as a character? I equally wonder whether increasing the confusion of an already messy opera didn’t manage to likewise exhaust the audience’s patience.

This version begins with a twist, centered on the 1880 unveiling of Offenbach’s splendidly gilded memorial. A man (likewise gilded) comes dashing onstage, frantically snatching at music pages falling from the rafters. Voilà! Offenbach, a new character inserted into his own opus. His first appearance drew chuckles from the audience, but as the opera continued, these intrusions seemed more and more unnecessary and illogical. We see Offenbach mincing around Hoffman during the Prologue; he wanders onstage to “play” the cello at various points in the opera; he conducts with an enormous baton at the top of the set, peering down at his characters. Prior to Act III, Offenbach casually rifles through the pages of his score, selecting a few at random to hand to the conductor. Wounded in the jealous fray between Hoffman and Giulietta, the composer is eventually killed by his own character. Does all this meta-plot really take us any further? At times the intrusions were merely comical, but at others, Offenbach was extremely distracting. The “real” Offenbach saw Tales of Hoffman as his only chance at serious opera, making it a strange twist of fate that his small golden effigy is running around onstage diverting attention from his efforts.

The staging, sets, and costume design seemed to suffer from this same overabundance of riches. The overall conception mixed beautifully rendered historical references with a few needless grotesqueries. The Third Empire style loomed large in the Offenbach memorial and a gorgeous model of the Musée d’Orsay clock (which sometimes reveals a naked woman). The central motif of the labyrinth is present throughout, usually in M.C. Escher-inspired backdrops and flooring. Spalanzani’s house reeled with lime green cloaks, a dwarf robot, strange spectacles, tin machines, and the Orsay clock. What was more befuddling was Act II’s similar urge to excess. At the voice of Antonia’s dead mother, a huge doll appeared, eventually manipulated by six Dr. Miracles. The dead mother peered over this entire spectacle from the top right of the stage, encased in a picture frame. Needless to say, all this brouhaha slightly eclipsed Antonia’s death scene. With the appearance of Giulietta, the Venetian setting elicited an incredibly elaborate world of courtesans, sea-horse headdresses, and again the Orsay clock.

Despite the almost overwhelming visual and narrative choices of this production, the vocal element mostly supported this massive edifice. Soprano Ailyn Pérez (spelled by Pamela Armstrong for a few performances) was appealing and impressive in the four main soprano roles. She seemed most idiomatic as Antonia, with her impassioned but diseased character recalling Pérez’s 2007 OTSL turn as Violetta. Her voice soared in the central section of Hoffman, especially in the opening romance and the closing trio. As Olympia, Pérez was a stellar mechanical doll. Her costume was so outlandish it was almost distracting (especially the metallic décolleté), but her jerky movements properly amused the audience. Her Doll Aria was well-acted and decently sung, though some of the rubato seemed to stem more from technical difficulties than interpretive license. She lacked a truly bell-like tone, again sounding more at home in her lyric moments than as a coloratura. The audience found Pérez truly loveable, cheering her loudly at the opera’s end.

Hoffman_StLouis.pngGarrett Sorenson as Hoffman and Matthew DiBattista as "Offenbach" in The Tales of Hoffman. (Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis).
Garrett Sorenson’s Hoffman sometimes lacked necessary power, though Sorenson is clearly capable of nice open singing, evidenced by his song to Kleinzach and many of the scenes with Antonia. Sorenson’s main dramatic problem lay in his awkward stage movements, which tended to handicap any dramatic interest. Jennifer Johnson sang beautifully as the Muse/ Nicklausse, with a lovely tone to her mezzo. Unfortunately, Johnson sang the entire opera covered in heavy gilt makeup, stemming from her turn as the Muse (or an anthropomorphized statue from Offenbach’s memorial). Kirk Eichelberger’s villains were likewise occasionally sabotaged by stage silliness, such as the multiple Dr. Miracles and giant stage doll. As Dapertutto, he got laughs rather than chills as he stole the soul of Schlémihl. His voice had nice rich moments, particularly the second trio of Act II.

The chorus was excellent and really charmed the audience from their first appearance. The orchestra was generally good, although there were a few ensemble problems in the strings the night I attended. While it was exciting to hear an English version of the Opéra-Comique spoken dialogue, most of it fell flat due to stilted declamation by the singers.

This Tales of Hoffman has a gorgeous sweep and sparkle to many of the sets and costumes. The fantastic element really comes alive in the juxtaposition of Third Empire references, machines gone awry, and fearlessly vivid colors. Perhaps some of the production’s most distracting complexities will magically disappear prior to Boston Opera’s 2008 performances.

Erin Brooks

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