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<em>Madama Butterfly</em>, Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2018
20 May 2018

Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2018 opens with Annilese Miskimmon's Madama Butterfly

As the bells rang with romance from the tower of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the rolling downs of Sussex - which had just acquired a new Duke - echoed with the strains of a rather more bitter-sweet cross-cultural love affair. Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2018 season opened with Annilese Miskimmon’s production of Madama Butterfly, first seen during the 2016 Glyndebourne tour and now making its first visit to the main house.

Madama Butterfly, Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Olga Busuioc (Cio-Cio-San)

Photo credit: Robbie Jack

 

Miskimmon has shifted the action forward to the 1950s in order, she explains, to use the ‘fake GI bride industry’ that was kick-started by the 1945 War Brides Act and the 1952 Immigration Act, which enabled American serviceman to bring foreign brides home to the US to underline the darkness of the power, to underline the exploitative darkness of the power dynamic between Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San.

So, the action begins in the ugly office of Gozo’s ‘marriage-broker’ business - though the catalogues of oriental beauties from which the GI’s make their choice and the clanging chink of silver in the cash register suggests that ‘brothel’ might be a more apt term. Designer Nicky Shaw evokes a drab seediness: higgledy-piggledy filing cabinets are illuminated by the intermittent flash of red and blue neon - ‘Hotel’, ‘Tattoo’ - and as cheap confetti is strewn brusquely over the conveyor belt of brides, the strings’ violent stabs in the overture take on a discomforting resonance. Flip-charts spin and cine-reels roll, instructing Eastern ingénues how to be a good American wife and embark on a journey to a new life in the US, where they can live the Dream. There is a disturbing double displacement: the Americans have callously colonised Nagasaki, and then coerced and lured the Japanese into their own world. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Cio-Cio-San is forced by her new husband to fling her wedding bouquet over her shoulder, as confused as the wedding guests who dart aside to avoid its fall.

Act 1 brokers.jpgOlga Busuioc (Cio-Cio-San, left), Joshua Guerrero (Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, left), Carlo Bosi (Goro, rear). Photo credit: Robbie Jack.

It leaves a horrid taste of merciless mercantilism, which makes Miskimmon’s point. More problematic is that the shift of locale makes a nonsense of the libretto’s frequent references to the house on which Pinkerton has just taken out a 999-year lease. An estate agent’s cardboard model is an attempt at remedy: and, the miniature abode does underline that paper walls can be shifted just as easily as deeds can be undone and knots tied torn asunder. It’s all a game - Pinkerton lounges insouciantly with his feet on Gozo’s desk - and Cio-Cio-San is a plaything, a doll. This ‘unreality’ is emphasised during the marriage ceremony by the division of the stage, as the bored US contingent lean impatiently, stage-left, while opposite, Cio-Cio-San’s family strive to earnestly engage in the ‘ceremony’.

The arrival of Oleg Budartaskiy’s dark-hued and threatening Bonze upsets the proceedings. When Pinkerton has angrily dismissed those who condemn his bride for betraying the gods of her ancestors, they are left alone to spend their wedding night in the broker’s office, and at this point one’s credulity is stretched. The cine-reels starts up, a visual accompaniment to their duet, but despite their words of love, the images of boats bearing joyfully waving Japanese brides past the Statue of Liberty are more reflective of Butterfly’s hopes than any intention on Pinkerton’s part. ‘Night is falling’ she sings, and the shop-blinds rise to give us a glimpse of golden stars blinking in the blackness, but the sentimentality is short-lived, and the gleam of celestial bodies is rapidly extinguished by the toxic glare of neon.

Act 2 Stars and Stripes.jpg Olga Busuioc (Cio-Cio-San). Photo credit: Robbie Jack.

The discomforting tensions of colonial presence pervade Act 2 also, where Butterfly is found living in an ‘American house’: Pinkerton has left her the monthly rent, some chic upholstery, a television set and a Stars-and-Stripes, and so keen is Butterfly to impress upon visitors her all-American up-to-datedness, she dresses herself in the unflattering, green two-piece suit which was her husband’s inappropriate wedding gift, files her nails and powders face while watching the box, legs pertly crossed at the knee like any good American housewife. But, beyond the shōji screens the falling sakura blossom adds a note of wistfulness, evoking tears, the passing of time, and the star-dust of Butterfly’s dreams of Pinkerton’s return.

The strength of Cio-Cio-San’s fantasies is highlighted during the Act 3 intermezzo when, as she sleeps before her ‘husband’s imminent arrival, her dreams are writ large. At the start of Acts 1 and 2, the front-drop of aquamarine above dense crimson, slanting, slashing brush-strokes - evoking the Japanese sun, passion and blood - fades to ashen blackness; but in Act 3, some colour remains and through the filmy gauze Butterfly’s memory of being carried over the threshold between worlds by Pinkerton, into the room in which their son, Sorrow, was conceived, is enacted in a dream sequence. The moment is beautifully lit by Mark Jonathan, as night turns to day, making Pinkerton’s observations that the room is just the same, but filled now with cold desolation, all the more chilling.

Miskimmon’s intent to push her, not unreasonable, concept results in some non-sequiturs, and these are exacerbated by some questionable movement direction. In Act 1, when Butterfly impassionedly challenges Pinkerton about the fate of her lepidopteral namesakes in the US, why does he climb the library steps as he replies that the insect is pinned to ensure that it will not escape - he will hold her forever? Then, in Act 2, why does Simon Mechlinksi’s Prince Yamadori arrive in a jeep powered by the push-power of members of the US marine service, sheltered by be-suited girls wielding sun-coloured parasols?

There is some hammy acting, with a fair bit of swooning, arm-flapping and rushing about in anguish, anxiety or ardour. Sorrow, already lumbered with a depressing name-label, is his mother’s confessor and chief exhibit, and witness to her quasi-hysteria, violence - when Gozo spreads rumours about the boy’s parentage, she attacks him with her stiletto heel - and preparations for suicide. One would be surprised if there were not considerable psychological problems ahead, however kind and loving Ida Ränzlöv’s scarlet-suited Kate Pinkerton proves to be. But, the boy’s joy when he learns of his father’s return is neatly captured by young Rupert Wade: he is swept up in his mother’s and Suzuki’s optimism and relief, donning his father’s cap and circling the television set to practise his marching and naval salutes, as his mother gathers cherry blossom in the hammock of a US flag and sweeps it with profligate joy around the rooms of her American house.

With Sorrow.jpgOlga Busuioc (Cio-Cio-San) and Rupert Wade (Sorrow). Photo credit: Robbie Jack.

Olga Busuioc’s Cio-Cio-San is the towering vocal and emotional linch-pin of this production. There is a delicacy and cleanness about the Moldovan soprano’s sound that shines with the naivety of adolescence, but we quickly appreciate that there are emotional depths which are ripe for igniting - when she snatches back her father’s sword from the disrespectful Pinkerton, and when she sings of the souls of her ancestors. In ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ she sings directly to us, pulling us into her own dream: both Butterfly’s innocence and the clarity and directness of the vocal line compel us to believe in her hopes, and as the aria proceeds it is infused with ever greater richness and colour.

Joshua Guerrero’s Pinkerton makes less of an impression: musically he is ardent when required, but dramatically this Pinkerton is rather flimsy. Flippant and egotistical at first, he does seem disconcerted perhaps by his bride’s age and by the genuflecting hordes paying homage to Butterfly’s ‘lord’; when they are married he is startled by her fragility and purity, which doesn’t betoken emotional depth, and his final avowals of guilt and regret don’t carry much weight.

Carlo Bosi’s Gozo is a slimy piece of work, counting his takings in full glare of his dupes, and whipping out a photo-chain of alternative brides for the rejected Yamadori. Michael Sumuel is a humble, hesitant somewhat ineffectual - though vocally sensitive and shapely, Sharpless at first, slightly bewildered by the crossing of his own moral thresholds. But, he rises heatedly to vigorous anger when he reminds Pinkerton of his prophecy that nothing good would come of playing with honest, guileless trust and love.

The loudest applause of the night was reserved for Elizabeth DeShong’s Suzuki who so impressed in the role at the ROH last year; we were ever aware of DeShong’s presence, even when she was silent, and the slightest of vocal utterances intimated great strength of character, feeling and loyalty, qualities released by the expansive of her vocal contribution in the Act 2 flower duet and in her Act 3 exchanges with the Pinkertons where her mezzo-soprano plummeted with real pain.

Conductor Omer Meir Wellbeir focused on the murmuring melodic delicacy of the woodwind and harp and avoid the temptation towards melodramatic tastelessness. The off-stage choral humming was atmospheric, though the Glyndebourne Chorus were denied some of the expressive majesty of their entries by the set design and concept. The former also led to some muddled outside-inside wanderings in Acts 2 and 3: Butterfly’s ritual suicide takes place ‘outside’, which creates a distancing that persists when her son opens his present from his father and plays with a toy boat, oblivious to the fact that he mother is dying behind him, as Pinkerton’s cries, ‘Butterfly!’, float in to little emotional effect.

Fortunately, this production has Olga Busuioc to restore its dramatic, emotional and moral heart, and to ensure that the discomforting darkness does not lack a guiding light.

Madama Butterfly continues until 18th July. Further details are available at Glyndebourne Festival 2018 .

Claire Seymour

Puccini: Madama Butterfly

Cio-Cio-San - Olga Busuioc, Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton - Joshua Guerrero, Goro - Carlo Bosi, Suzuki - Elizabeth DeShong, Sharpless - Michael Sumuel, Bonze - Oleg Burdartaskiy, Prince Yamadori - Simon Mechlinski, Sorrow - Rupert Wade, Kate Pinkerton - Ida Ränzlöv, The Cousin - Jennifer Witton, Cio-Cio-San’s mother - Eirlys Myfanwy Davies, Yakuside - Adam Marsden, The Aunt - Shuna Scott Sendall, Imperial Commissioner - Michael Mofidian, Official Registrar - Jake Muffett; director - Annalise Miskimmon, conductor - Omer Meir Wellber, designer - Nicky Shaw, lighting designer - Mark Jonathan, movement director - Kally Lloyd Jones, video designer - Ian William Galloway, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera; Saturday 19th May 2018.

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