Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Jean Sibelius: Kullervo

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op. 7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn’t allow it to be heard after its initial performances, though he referred to it fondly in private. This new recording, from Hyperion with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, soloists Helena Juntunen and Benjamin Appl and the Lund Male Chorus, is a good new addition to the ever-growing awareness of Kullervo, on recording and in live performance.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

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

Above

 

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.

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):