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22 Oct 2015

Shattering Madama Butterfly Stockholm

An intelligent updating and outstanding performance of the title role lead to a shattering climax in Puccini's Japanese opera

Shattering Madama Butterfly Stockholm

A review by Robert Hugill



The programme book for Kirsten Harms' production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly was all in Swedish, except a synopsis in English, but we were at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm after all. So I was unable to read the articles by Harms and her designer Herbert Murauer so when attending the production at the Opera House (Operan), I had to rely simply on eyes and ears to report on their intentions. I saw the performance on 16 October 2015 (the production was new in November 2014), sung in Italian, with Asmik Grigorian (a Lithuanian soprano who was the Butterfly at the production's premiere), Jonas Degerfeldt (a member of the Royal Swedish Opera's ensemble) as Pinkerton, Karl-Magnus Fredriksson as Sharpless, Susann Vegh as Suzuki and Daniel Ralphsson as Goro. The Korean conductor Eunsun Kim conducted, she is familiar to English audiences following her debut conducting Die Fledermaus at English National Opera.

Kim and the orchestra launched into a wonderfully dramatic and involving account of the prelude and the curtain raised on Herbert Murauer's set, a 1950's/60's modern house with a wall of glass at the back, a huge Japanese print filling the wall stage left, and Japanese scrolls hanging from the ceiling. Furniture was Danish Modern style, and in one of the arm-chairs lounged Karl-Magnus Fredrickson's Pinkerton, whilst in a gantry above his colleagues from his ship mustered. Goro (Daniel Ralphsson) appeared from a staircase leading down to lower levels. Hyper active and dressed in Western, rather psychedelic colours, Goro had brought dress clothes for Pinkerton and harried him to dress, all the whilst preparing the drinks for the wedding. We saw two apparent 'geishas' until we realised that these were men!

It was not going to be a traditional Madame Butterfly. Harms had chosen to set the piece in Japan in the 1950's/60's in the context of a society in change. Butterfly and her relatives are Western assimilated, with costumes which mixed Western style with Japanese references. But still there are cultural differences and these provoke a more violent than usual reaction with the entry of the Bonze (Kristian Flor), here more of a fundamentalist than a quiet priest, and with four violent kung-fu henchmen who beat everyone up. The love duet arises out of this violence, and during part two it is clear that Butterfly is in some way damaged, post-stress disorder perhaps has left her mentally fragile and the second half is the depiction of her gradual decline. The opera was given in the correct version with no break at the humming chorus, and Butterfly and her friend Suzuki (Suzann Vegh) were camped out in the ruins of the grand modernist house. The climax, when it came was dramatic as Butterfly committed suicide in full view of Pinkerton who, calling from the balcony, was able to see all but not reach her.

I have to confess that in performances of Madama Butterfly there comes a point in part two when I start to hanker for the more elegant conciseness of La Boheme, but in this performance thanks to the sheer beauty and intensity of Asmik Grigorian's Butterfly and Eunsum Kim's conducting, this moment never appeared. Part two was one sustained piece of gradually building intense drama with a shattering climax. That we had moved the setting forward 50 years meant that whilst the Japanese/Western divide was still the engine of the drama, the lack of exotic Japonaiserie meant that the singers could concentrate on the drama rather than evoking Japan with carefully composed gestures.

It helped that Asmik Grigorian was such a mesmerising and musical Butterfly. Vocally she sounds somewhat like Victoria de los Angeles, with richly elegant lyric tones and that slight, effecting edge to the voice. She had enough power in reserve so that at Piccolo idol, when Butterfly turns into Tosca (or perhaps more appropriately, Liu turns into Turandot) Grigorian showed she had the right amount of power without pushing her voice beyond the limit. Butterfly is  tricky role, and many of the singers who performed it in Puccini's lifetime were dramatic ones, but you still need to be able to be fluidly fluent and convincingly girlish too. Grigorian gave a performance of great musicality and I suspect that it would be lovely to listen to, there was little in the way of pushing and stretching the vocal line. She combined this with a sense of the intensity of Butterfly's decline into near dementia.

Jonas Degerfeldt performance as Pinkerton had a robust, rough-hewn quality to it, and whilst he may not have been the most ingratiating, Italianate Pinkerton vocally, he had the admirable virtue of consistency. His voice went right to the top, with no forcing and he was as vigorous at the closing as at the opening. The rough edged feel worked well with the character, this was a Pinkerton who had made himself at home in Japan but had no qualms about abandoning all when he returned home. Though the violence of the Bonze's attack at the end of Act One, and Pinkerton's failure to protect Butterfly made you wonder whether Harms was suggesting other deeper issues, perhaps an inability to accept that he had failed to protect led to his need to abandon. Degerfeldt had the strength of personality to bring off the tricky ending, where we get very little time with the returned Pinkerton.

Karl-Magnus Fredriksson brought a soft-grained quality to his performance as Sharpless. A relatively young man, this Sharpless was personable and sympathetic, but completely unable to act when he needed to. The letter scene was profoundly poignant, with the combination of Fredriksson's sympathetic warm baritone and the intensity of Grigorian's response.

In this version, Suzuki is Butterfly's friend rather than servant, and in part two she is the only friend left, bringing Butterfly food and supporting her. This slight revision gave Susann Vegh as Suzuki the ability to be a strong friend rather than a surly servant, and her performance had great sympathy and strength of character. She made a great impression in the role, both musically and dramatically and it would be interesting to hear her in something larger.

Daniel Ralphsson was brilliant as the hyperactive, self-serving Goro, full of bits of business but never quite pulling focus from the main action. He is a relatively young man and Ralphsson brought a nice flexibility to the part. Magnus Kyle was the much put-upon Yamadori, far older than Butterfly and rather world-weary for all his grand robe. The remaining characters, all small but important, were well taken with Eva Sahlin as Kate Pinkerton, IIan Power as Yakuside, Henrik Hugo as the Notary, Hakan Ekenas as the Commissioner and Anna Norrby as Butterfly's mother. Kristin Leoson was brilliant as the clearly traumatised child, Sorrow, who barely lets anyone touch him and is completely filthy.

Harms and her designer Herbert Murauer had one or two visual coups. For Butterfly's entrance, which is to emerge from the floor via the staircase going downstairs, she was carrying a parasol but it was covered in white muslin as a veil giving an unforgettable visual image. This was re-iterated during the opening of the scene after the humming chorus, when in the long orchestral introduction the scene was repeated but this time with a naked dancer as Butterfly and the veil was red. Eight Pinkertons appeared and eventually followed her into the distance up stage. Another innovation was the entertainment during the wedding. Whilst the guests sat down and tucked into their bento boxes, two women dressed as sexy sailors danced with the two men dressed as geishas.

That Kristen Harms production made such a strong impression is partly due to the finely engrossing performances from the cast, with Eunsun Kim getting great support from the orchestra. This meant that the shattering ending came as the real climax. Asmik Grigorian was certainly the focus and the star, but she was strongly partnered by the rest of the cast so that it did feel like a good ensemble production. I would gladly encounter this staging again, and certainly hope to see Asmik Grigorian in other roles.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Butterfly: Asmik Grigorian, Pinkerton: Jonas Degerfeldt, Sharpless: Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, Suzuki: Susann Vegh, Goro: Daniel Ralphsson, Kate Pinkerton: Eva Sahlin, Yakuside: IIan Power, Notary: Henrik Hugo, Commissioner: Hakan Ekenas, Butterfly’s mother; Anna Norrby, Sorrow: Kristin Leoson, Bonze: Kristian Flor
Director: Kirsten Harms, Designer: Herbert Murauer. Conductor: Eunsun Kim. Royal Swedish Opera, Opera House, Stockholm. October 16 2015.

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