Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Peter Grimes in Princeton

The Princeton Festival presents one opera annually, amidst other events. Its offerings usually alternate annually between 20th century and earlier operas. This year the Festival presented Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, now a classic work, in a very effective and moving production.

Scintillating Strauss in Saint Louis

If you like your Ariadne on Naxos productions as playful as a box of puppies, then Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is the address for you.

Saint Louis Takes On ‘The Scottish Opera’

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis took forty years before attempting Verdi’s Macbeth but judging by the excellence of the current production, it was well worth the wait.

Anatomy Theater: A Most Unusual New Opera

On June 16, 2016, Los Angeles Opera with Beth Morrison Projects presented the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang's Anatomy Theater at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT).

Shalimar in St. Louis: Pagliaccio Non Son

In its compact forty-year history, the ambitious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has just triumphantly presented its twenty-fifth world premiere with Shalimar the Clown.

Jenůfa, ENO

The sharp angles and oddly tilting perspectives of Charles Edwards’ set for David Alden’s production of Jenůfa at ENO suggest a community resting precariously on the security and certainty of its customs, soon to slide from this precipice into social and moral anarchy.

The “Other” Marriage of Figaro in a West Village Townhouse

Last week an audience of 50 assembled in the kitchen of a luxurious West Village townhouse for a performance of Marriage of Figaro.

West Wind: A new song-cycle by Sally Beamish

In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.

Florencia en el Amazonas, NYCO

With the New York Premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas, the New York City Opera Steps Out of the Shadows of the Past

Idomeneo, re di Creta, Garsington

Opportunities to see Idomeneo are not so frequent as they might be, certainly not so frequent as they should be.

Don Carlo in San Francisco

Not merely Don Carlo, but the five-act Don Carlo in the 1886 Modena version! The welcomed esotericism of San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary spring season.

Jenůfa in San Francisco

The early summer San Francisco Opera season has the feel of a classy festival. There is an introduction of Spanish director Calixto Bieito to American audiences, a five-act Don Carlo and two awaited, inevitable role debuts, Karita Mattila as Kostelnička and Malin Bystrom as Janacek's Jenůfa.

Musings on the “American Ring

Now that the curtain has long fallen on the third and last performance of the Ring cycle at the Washington National Opera (WNO), it is safe to say that the long-anticipated production has been an unqualified success for the company, director Francesca Zambello, and conductor Philippe Auguin.

Nabucco, Covent Garden

Most of the attention during this revival of Daniele Abbado’s 2013 production of Nabucco has been directed at Plácido Domingo’s reprise of the title role, with the critical reception somewhat mixed.

The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne

Four years ago, almost to the day (13th to 12th), I saw Melly Still’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen during its first Glyndebourne run. I found myself surprised how much more warmly I responded to it this time.

London: A 90th birthday tribute to Horovitz

This recital celebrated both the work of the Park Lane Group, which has been supporting the careers of outstanding young artists for 60 years, and the 90th birthday of Joseph Horovitz, who was born in Vienna in 1926 and emigrated to England aged 12.

Opera Las Vegas: A Blazing Carmen in the Desert

Headed by General Director Luana DeVol, a world-renowned dramatic soprano, Opera Las Vegas is a relatively new company that presents opera with first-rate casts at the University of Las Vegas’s Judy Bayley Theater. In 2014 they presented Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and in 2015, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year they offered a blazing rendition of Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

La bohème, Opera Holland Park

Ever since a friend was reported as having said he would like something in return for modern-dress Shakespeare (how quaint that term seems now, as if anyone would bat an eyelid!), namely an Elizabethan-dress staging of Look Back in Anger, I have been curious about the possibilities of ‘down-dating’, as I suppose we might call it. Rarely, if ever, do we see it, though.

Holland Festival: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Amsterdam

Leading a very muscular Dutch Radio Philharmonic, Principal Conductor Markus Stenz brilliantly delivered Alban Berg’s Wozzeck with a superb Florian Boesch in the lead and a mesmerising Asmik Grigorian as Marie his wife.

Pietro Mascagni: Iris

There can’t be that many operas that start with an extended solo for double bass. At Holland Park, the eerie, angular melody for lone bass player which opens Pietro Mascagni’s Iris immediately unsettled the relaxed mood of the summer evening.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Kristīne Opolais as Cio-Cio-San [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera]
29 Jun 2011

Sensitive, intelligent Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera

This Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the depth and intelligence of the human story Puccini might be trying to tell us, beneath the surface gloss.

Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly

B F Pinkerton: James Valenti; Goro: Robin Leggate; Suzuki: Helene Schneiderman; Sharpless: Anthony Michaels-Moore; Cio Cio San: Kristine Opolais; Imperial Commissioner: Daniel Grice; Cio Cio San's family: Eileen Hamilton; Alan Duffield; Elizabeth Key; Kiera Lyness; The Bonze: Jeremy White; Prince Yamadori: Zhengzhong Zhou; Dolore: Niklas Allan; Kate Pinkerton: Rachael Lloyd. Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House. Conductor: Andris Nelsons. Directors: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. Set Designer: Christian Fenouillat. Costume Designer: Agostino Cavalca. Lighting Designer: Christopher Forey. Royal Opera House, London, 25th June 2011.

Above: Kristīne Opolais as Cio-Cio-San

All photos by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera

 

When this production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly premiered in 2003, I remember being startled at how stark the production seemed, with its clean horizontal lines and open spaces. Very different indeed from the over-stuffed, over-fussy clutter of fin de siècle clichés about Japan. WesternJaponisme as decorative wrapping has little to do with reality. Madama Butterfly is a powerful opera because it deals with real human dilemmas, by no means unique to Japan or to the early 20th century.

MADAMA-BUTTERFLY.10075_729.gifJames Valenti as Pinkerton and Kristīne Opolais as Cio-Cio-San

Instead, this production, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, uses the Japanese context intelligently so it works with the drama. Japanese art is stylized, blank spaces part of the design, so key details stand out in sharp focus. The sets in this production, designed by Christian Fenouillat, are clean and open, so there’s no irrelevant distraction. The backdrop of shoji screens allows quick scene changes, contrasting the interior with the vast panorama outside. It’s a telling comment. As Goro points out, changing the walls changes perspective. This opera isn’t really “about” Japanese society as much as about the way people don’t perceive things in the same way.

As Caurier and Leiser said in their recent interview with Opera Today, Madama Butterfly is “not a beautiful story, it’s awful, it’s violent. Yes, you see the flowers but you must have the smell of blood running through them”. Throughout history, those with wealth and power have always been able to exploit those who don’t. Pinkerton buys a package, house, servants, mock family and a girl to use as sexual convenience. He’s infatuated temporarily by Butterfly’s beauty but he’s under no illusion that he’s interested in her other than as an object to gratify his ego. Perhaps that’s why he takes the child. He can’t conceive that its mother or culture mean anything.

Butterfly is so desperate to escape her background that even before she meets Pinkerton, she’s obsessed about becoming an instant American. She invests so much in her delusion that she can’t cope with reality. She kills herself, not simply because harakiri “is” custom, but because she’s invested so much into her fixation that she can’t live with reality…“nulla, nulla, fuor che la morte”.

Although this is the third revival of this production since 2003, the performance felt vivid because it was directed, not by substitutes, but by Leiser and Caurier themselves. Every performance has to be “new” because casts change and circumstances change. Patricia Racette, who has sung Cio Cio San many times before, pulled out at the last minute, but in some ways that was fortunate, because Kristine Opolais, making her Royal Opera House debut, throws herself so convincingly into the part that she makes it her own. She’s young enough to convey Butterfly’s innocence but has strength of personality, which comes through in her singing. She sings the love duet with such intensity that you wonder how a 15 year old could find such passion, especially for a stranger she’s just met. This emphasizes Butterfly’s single-minded determination. Reality doesn’t get in the way of imagination.

MADAMA-BUTTERFLY.10075_359.gifJames Valenti as Pinkerton

Opolais’s Butterfly is nicely varied. After the Bonze’s curse, her voice takes on a tense edge, showing that Butterfly is deeply traumatized, but soon switches back to gentleness when she turns to Pinkerton. Swift reactions matter, for Cio Cio San is always adapting, and living intensely in the moment. Opolias’s interaction with Dolore (Niklas Allan) feels genuine. She’s not singing to an object, or a puppet, but as real mother to real child. Madama Butterflies stand and fall on “Un bel di vedremo”, and Opolais conveys true emotional engagement. She’s not merely describing a sequence of events, but how they feel to her. An interesting voice, with good range, and a natural acting singer. She’s a regular at the Berlin Staatsoper, where she’ll be singing Butterfly in March 2012.

James Valenti as Lt. Pinkerton is rather less successful, although he has had the role in his repertoire for years. Arguably, Pinkerton is emotionally more buttoned up than many men, but Puccini builds a lot more into the part than repression. Perhaps further into the run, Valenti’s voice may blossom, and hopefully be preserved at its best in the film that’s being released on BP Big Screen and cinemas on 4th July. Anthony Michaels-Moore sang Sharpless with warmth, for the Consul is a figure of reasonableness in this claustrophobic world of extremes.

MADAMA-BUTTERFLY.10075_192.gifKristīne Opolais as Cio-Cio-San and Jeremy White as Bonze

From the vigour with which Robin Leggate sang Goro, it was hard to believe that he’s retiring after the end of this production, his 909th performance at the Royal Opera House, since 1977. This Goro is directed so he moves swiftly, reflecting the character’s quick wits and cunning. Leggate sings with unflagging energy, despite having to be fleet of foot.

Similarly, Helene Schneiderman’s Suzuki was vibrant and expressive. There’s a lot more to this role than mere servant. Suzuki can be cocky, although she’s loyal. Cio Cio San isn’t completely the mistress even at home. Schneiderman intones her prayer to the gods so forcefully that when she sings with Butterfly, you pick up on the undercurrent of tension that exists even in their relationship. Suzuki’s gods will win; Cio Cio San hasn’t a chance.

MADAMA-BUTTERFLY.10076_0086.gifRobin Leggate as Goro, Helene Schneiderman as Suzuki, Kristīne Opolais as Cio-Cio-San and Anthony Michaels-Moore as Sharpless

Buddhists don’t normally curse people, and in Japan, Buddhism co-exists with Shinto quite happily. Buddhists have a lot in common with Christians too. This Bonze is a figment of Puccini’s imagination, created to inject extreme panic, for he smashes forever Cio Cio San’s links with her past. Perhaps that’s why in this production, he appears all-white, like an apparition of a ghost from a Japanese horror story, not as a living monk. Jeremy White’s Bonze bursts onto the scene, screaming violently, striking terror. Great theatre, as Puccini must have intended.

Zhengzhong Zhou sings Prince Yamadori and Daniel Grice sings the Imperial Commissioner. Both impressed, proving how the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme nurtures singers in good directions. Yamadori is an interesting role which could be developed more than it usually is. Why would a prince marry a second-hand geisha, especially one who’s been cursed for consorting with foreigners? He rides a carriage up the steep hill, whereas everyone else in this opera walks. Why would a man of that status humiliate himself by divesting all his other wives? Zhou sings the part with tenderness, creating a sincere Yamadori who is emotionally honest and vulnerable though he has all the trappings of power. Pinkerton in reverse?

MADAMA-BUTTERFLY.10076_0945.gif(Front to Back) Kristīne Opolais as Cio-Cio-San and Helene Schneiderman as Suzuki

Andris Nelson conducted. He’s currently Music Director at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Simon Rattle’s former post), but conducts a lot of opera, including engagements in Bayreuth, New York, Berlin and Vienna.

For more information, please see the Royal Opera House website.

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):