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

Nico Muhly's Marnie at ENO

Winston Graham’s 1961 novel Marnie was bold for its time. Its themes of sexual repression, psychological suspense and criminality set within the dark social fabric of contemporary Britain are but outlier themes of the anti-heroine’s own narrative of deceit, guilt, multiple identities and blackmail.

TOSCA: A Dramatic Sing-Fest

On November 12, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s verismo opera, Tosca, in a dramatic production directed by Tara Faircloth. Her production utilized realistic scenery from Seattle Opera and detailed costumes from the New York City Opera. Gregory Allen Hirsch’s lighting made the set look like the church of St. Andrea as some of us may have remembered it from time gone by.

The Lighthouse: Shadwell Opera at Hackney Showroom

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … and horror … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.’

Elisabeth Kulman sings Mahler's Rückert-Lieder with Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia

Austrian singer Elisabeth Kulman has had an interesting career trajectory. She began her singing life as a soprano but later shifted to mezzo-soprano/contralto territory. Esteemed on the operatic stage, she relinquished the theatre for the concert platform in 2015, following an accident while rehearsing Tristan.

Tremendous revival of Katie Mitchell's Lucia at the ROH

The morning sickness, miscarriage and maundering wraiths are still present, but Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor, receiving its first revival at the ROH, seems less ‘hysterical’ this time round - and all the more harrowing for it.

Manon in San Francisco

Nothing but a wall and a floor (and an enormous battery of unseen lighting instruments) and two perfectly matched artists, the Manon of soprano Ellie Dehn and the des Grieux of tenor Michael Fabiano, the centerpiece of Paris’ operatic Belle Époque found vibrant presence on the War Memorial stage.

A beguiling Il barbiere di Siviglia from GTO

I had mixed feelings about Annabel Arden’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia when it was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2016. Now reprised (revival director, Sinéad O’Neill) for the autumn 2017 tour, the designs remain a vibrant mosaic of rich hues and Moorish motifs, the supernumeraries - commedia stereotypes cum comic interlopers - infiltrate and interact even more piquantly, and the harpsichords are still flying in, unfathomably, from all angles. But, the drama is a little less hyperactive, the characterisation less larger-than-life. And, this Saturday evening performance went down a treat with the Canterbury crowd on the final night of GTO’s brief residency at the Marlowe Theatre.

Brett Dean's Hamlet: GTO in Canterbury

‘There is no such thing as Hamlet,’ says Matthew Jocelyn in an interview printed in the 2017 Glyndebourne programme book. The librettist of Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera based on the Bard’s most oft-performed tragedy, which was premiered to acclaim in June this year, was noting the variants between the extant sources for the play - the First, or ‘Bad’, Quarto of 1603, which contains just over half of the text of the Second Quarto which published the following year, and the First Folio of 1623 - no one of which can reliably be guaranteed superiority over the other.

WNO's Russian Revolution series: the grim repetitions of the house of the dead

‘We lived in a heap together in one barrack. The flooring was rotten and an inch deep in filth, so that we slipped and fell. When wood was put into the stove no heat came out, only a terrible smell that lasted through the winter.’ So wrote Dostoevsky, in a letter to his brother, about his experiences in the Siberian prison camp at Omsk where he was incarcerated between 1850-54, because of his association with a group of political dissidents who had tried to assassinate the Tsar. Dostoevsky’s ‘house of the dead’ is harrowingly reproduced by Maria Björsen’s set - a dark, Dantesque pit from which there is no possibility of escape - for David Pountney’s 1982 production of Janáček’s final opera, here revived as part of Welsh National Opera’s Russian Revolution series.

The 2017 Glyndebourne Tour arrives in Canterbury with a satisfying Così fan tutte

A Così fan tutte set in the 18th century, in Naples, beside the sea: what, no meddling with Mozart? Whatever next! First seen in 2006, and now on its final run before ‘retirement’, Nicholas Hytner’s straightforward account (revived by Bruno Ravella) of Mozart’s part-playful, part-piquant tale of amorous entanglements was a refreshing opener at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury where Glyndebourne Festival Opera arrived this week for the first sojourn of the 2017 tour.

Richard Jones's Rodelinda returns to ENO

Shameless grabs for power; vicious, self-destructive dynastic in-fighting; a self-righteous and unwavering sense of entitlement; bruised egos and integrity jettisoned. One might be forgiven for thinking that it was the current Tory government that was being described. However, we are not in twenty-first-century Westminster, but rather in seventh-century Lombardy, the setting for Handel’s 1725 opera, Rodelinda, Richard Jones’s 2014 production of which is currently being revived at English National Opera.

Amusing Old Movie Becomes Engrossing New Opera

Director Mario Bava’s motion picture, Hercules in the Haunted World, was released in Italy in November 1961, and in the United States in April 1964. In 2010 composer Patrick Morganelli wrote a chamber opera entitled Hercules vs. Vampires for Opera Theater Oregon.

Rigoletto at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If a credible portrayal of the title character in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is vital to any performance, the success of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current, exciting production hinges very much on the memorable court jester and father sung by baritone Quinn Kelsey.

Wexford Festival Opera 2017

‘What’s the delay? A little wind and rain are nothing to worry about!’ The villagers’ indifference to the inclement weather which occurs mid-way through Jacopo Foroni’s opera Margherita - as the townsfolk set off in pursuit of two mystery assailants seen attacking a man in the forest - acquired an unintentionally ironic slant in Wexford Opera House on the opening night of Michael Sturm’s production, raising a wry chuckle from the audience.

The Genius of Purcell: Carolyn Sampson and The King's Consort at the Wigmore Hall

This celebration of The Genius of Purcell by Carolyn Sampson and The King’s Consort at the Wigmore Hall was music-making of the most absorbing and invigorating kind: unmannered, direct and refreshing.

Classical Opera/The Mozartists celebrate 20 years of music-making

Classical Opera celebrated 20 years of music-making and story-telling with a characteristically ambitious and eclectic sequence of musical works at the Barbican Hall. Themes of creation and renewal were to the fore, and after a first half comprising a variety of vocal works and short poems, ‘Classical Opera’ were succeeded by their complementary alter ego, ‘The Mozartists’, in the second part of the concert for a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony - a work described by Page as ‘in many ways the most iconic work in the repertoire’.

Back to Baroque and to the battle lines with English Touring Opera

Romeo and Juliet, Rinaldo and Armida, Ramadès and Aida: love thwarted by warring countries and families is a perennial trope of literature, myth and history. Indeed, ‘Love and war are all one,’ declared Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote, a sentiment which seems to be particularly exemplified by the world of baroque opera with its penchant for plundering Classical Greek and Roman myths for their extreme passions and conflicts. English Touring Opera’s 2017 autumn tour takes us back to the Baroque and back to the battle-lines.

Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice opened the 2017–18 season at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Michelle DeYoung, Mahler Symphony no 3 London

The Third Coming ! Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Mahler Symphony no 3 with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall with Michelle DeYoung, the Philharmonia Voices and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. It was live streamed worldwide, an indication of just how important this concert was, for it marks the Philharmonia's 34-year relationship with Salonen.

King Arthur at the Barbican: a semi-opera for the 'Brexit Age'

Purcell’s and Dryden’s King Arthur: or the British Worthy presents ‘problems’ for directors. It began life as a propaganda piece, Albion and Albanius, in 1683, during the reign of Charles II, but did not appear on stage as King Arthur until 1691 when William of Orange had ascended to the British Throne to rule as William III alongside his wife Mary and the political climate had changed significantly.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Blind Summit pupeteer and Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki [Photo by Robert Piwko]
22 Oct 2013

Madame Butterfly at ENO

First seen in 2005, and since feted in London (several times), New York and Lithuania, Anthony Minghella’s cinematic production of Madame Butterfly remains a breath-taking visual banquet.

Madame Butterfly at ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Blind Summit pupeteer and Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki [Photo © Robert Piwko]

 

The sumptuous splendour of Michael Levine’s opulent sets and Han Feng’s eye-catching costumes is an optical feast, and the tableaux and choreographed sequences, particularly those which open and close the opera, retain their gasp-rendering thrill. The japonaiserie is meticulous and authentically minimalist: low wooden dwellings, rooms like paper boxes, sliding doors and walls silently gliding into infinite formations, tea trays laid decorously on tatami mats. The kaleidoscopic array of geishas’ gowns and ceremonial headgear, set against the deep carmine of the rising sun or the emerald glow of green moonlight, is stunning.

Yet, so much of the design seems to me convey an idealised, Orientalist perspective, casting a Western eye on Japanese culture, underpinned by a score which is innately Eurocentric. Like Pinkerton, we are tourists in a foreign land, and perhaps guilty of indulging in what Edward Said described as a ‘Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the orient’.

ENO_Butterfly_04.pngDina Kuzenetsova as Madam Butterfly, Alun Rhys-Jenkins as Goro and Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki [Photo © Robert Piwko]

The stunning skills of the puppeteers of Blind Summit astonish us with their eye-deceiving dexterity and the scenes which Minghella crafts have an undeniable visual exquisiteness; but, such pictures are essentially static, hypnotising the onlooker and drawing attention away from the emotional drama which unfolds through the music. For example, at the end of Act 1 the long duet of Butterfly, fearful of love’s fragility, and Pinkerton, unthinkingly indifferent to her terrors, touches us with less immediacy than does the sculptured landscape of disorientating paper moons and pendant floral fronds — trails of starry necklaces against the night sky. It is as if the flimsy tale of a love disregarded and betrayed cannot bear the ‘weight’ of the artistic realisation of the director’s lavish visual imagination.

It is, in fact, Peter Mumford’s marvellous lighting design which so magnificently generates the production’s shimmering exoticism, injecting drama into the pictorial vistas. Mumford crafts a constantly shifting world, one of appearances rather than materiality: wondrous, yet elusively insubstantial. He fashions a maze of interwoven reflections which extend upwards to the night sky and slithers downwards along Levine’s glimmering sloping stage. Despite the production’s Eurocentrism, the shifting images and shadows which Mumford sets in motion suggest a more authentic East, as they flicker and flutter across the mirror surfaces, as elusive and ambiguous as Butterfly’s own identity. In a land where power is in the hands of men, and women are valued only as the transient objects of male passion, the mirroring echoes both evoke a dreaming air, and also suggest Butterfly’s own search for the identity imposed upon her by, and reflected in, the eyes of others — that is, as she endeavours to become the object of Pinkerton’s fantasy.

ENO_Butterfly_01.pngDina Kuznetsova as Madam Butterfly and Timothy Richards as Pinkerton [Photo © Thomas Bowles]

Thus, Butterfly is herself a ‘puppet’ — as the blood-red kimono sashes with which the dancers encircle her immobile form confirm. But, Mumford’s lighting can hint emotional depths; in the aforementioned duet, for example, as the petals flicker fleetingly, they recall the hannabi displays so familiar of Japanese summer nights — their flowery fire is often multiplied by the dark waters above which they explode — and perhaps suggest the flame of passionate devotion which blazes in Butterfly’s heart.

Ironically it is the passive, self-abnegating Madame Butterfly, sung with seductive ease by Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova, who in this production proves the strongest character; for while Japanese women are traditionally required to be compliant and submissive, it is Dina Kuznetsova and Pamela Helen Stephen, as her maid Suzuki, who vocally dominate the proceedings. Making her ENO debut, Kuznetsova used her warm, full voice to convey Butterfly’s tender devotion and constancy. Although perhaps somewhat mature for the role, she convinced and moved hearts: her soprano is ripe with Romantic lyricism, and full of dusky hues, but as she shows in the second Act, she can also spin a gorgeous pianissimo. Most impressively, she communicated every word of the text; for once the surtitles were largely redundant.

Kuznetsova’s haunting performance, and excellent diction, was matched by Pamela Helen Stephen’s characterful Suzuki; she had enormous stage presence, and in Act 3’s ‘Già il sole!’ the range and impact of the emotions conveyed was striking, from sorrowful resignation to helpless dismay.

Sadly, as Pinkerton Timothy Richards was less engaging. Also making his house debut, Richards sang sturdily but with little vocal diversity or musical characterisation. He displayed an unfortunate tendency to ‘shout’ at emotional highpoints, in order to be heard about the full orchestral surges. George von Bergen was a bumbling American Consul Sharpless, but dramatically and vocally he also seemed rather adrift; his voice was sufficiently resonant but at times lacked focus. And, the diction of both male leads was poor.

ENO_Butterfly_02.pngDina Kuznetsova as Madam Butterfly and George von Bergen as Sharpless [Photo © Thomas Bowles]

There were solid performances from Alun Rhys-Jenkins (Goro) and Alexander Robin Baker (Prince Yamadori); and Mark Richardson was fittingly imperious and formidable as Butterfly’s uncle, The Bonze, with a ferocious bite to his bark. Catherine Young made a strong impression as Kate Pinkerton.

Butterfly’s child is a bunraku-inspired, sailor-suited puppet-child; but while we marvel at the deftness of the black-costumed manipulators who imbue the marionette with uncanny veracity, the singularity of this lone puppet results in a distancing of our affections. The alien child seems strangely material and unyielding, at odds with the evanescence of the rest of the production.

There was another ENO debut in the orchestra pit, with conductor Gianluca Marciano taking the helm; the ENO orchestra gave a reliable performance but one which did not altogether capture the emotional heaves and peaks of the score.

In the final reckoning, Minghella’s visual alchemy casts its spell but it is Kuznetsova who makes the magic work. In Act 3, the lyrical force of her melodic utterances conquers the marvellous but, at times, diverting imagery; and, seduced, discarded and forgotten, her unwavering resolution makes up for the absence of consistently powerful dynamics between the other characters. Kuznetsova convinces us that, despite her assertion that she is now American, Butterfly — in re-enacting her father’s ritual suicide — is killed by the compelling, ineffaceable social mores of her own culture.

Claire Seymour

Madame Butterfly continues in repertory until 1 December.


Cast and production information:

Butterfly, Dina Kuznetsova; F.B. Pinkerton, Timothy Richards; Sharpless, George von Bergen; Suzuki, Pamela Helen Stephen; Goro Alun, Rhys-Jenkins; The Bonze, Mark Richardson; Prince Yamadori, Alexander Robin Baker; Kate Pinkerton, Catherine Young; Director, Anthony Minghella; Revival Director, Sarah Tipple; Original Associate Director & Choreographer, Carolyn Choa; Set Designer, Michael Levine; Costume Designer, Han Feng; Original Lighting Designer, Peter Mumford; Revival Choreographer, Anita Griffin; Puppetry, Blind Summit; Conductor, Gianluca Marciano; Translator, David Parry. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Monday 14th October 2013.

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):