Monday, April 10, 2017

MADAMA BUTTERFLY at Covent Garden: the long wait is over...

...for Butterfly and me!  Yes I have finally seen her opera.

Constant Reader, you are probably bored with my reiterating that in 2015 we decided to explore a more diverse cultural map which including those imposing monoliths opera and dance.  Dance was an immediate winner but opera has been a harder sell - a truly unmagical PETER PAN from Welsh National Opera put paid to that.  However we seem to have had a new plan of attack which is to see the Big Diva operas and so far they are paying off.  First was Verdi's LA TRAVIATA at the Opera House, then TOSCA at the English National Opera and now it's back to the welcoming plush of Covent Garden to see Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY.

I've just noticed that these operas are all based on plays - maybe that should be the criteria for choosing ones to see?  It was only a stone's throw from the Opera House - at the more humble Duke of Yorks Theatre - that Puccini saw the original stage production in 1900.  He didn't understand what was being said but what connected with him was the intimate drama that was so powerfully staged by David Belasco who also wrote it.

A particular moment that struck Puccini was how Belasco had his lead actress sit still for over 10 minutes while lighting effects suggested the shift from night to day as Butterfly waits all through the night for her husband who does not appear - Puccini would later score this moment in his opera with an offstage choir providing the haunting "Humming Chorus".

Oddly enough, along with TOSCA and TRAVIATA, BUTTERFLY was not well received but the great composers were not precious about these things and after some judicious editing - changing it from a 3-act opera to a 2 act one - BUTTERFLY has fluttered down the years to be not just one of the most popular operas of all time but to also become an icon in other areas of performance: Mary Pickford and Anna May Wong played her in silent films while Helen Hayes played her in the sound era, Malcolm McLaren reinvented the aria 'Un Bel Di Vedremo' into his hip-hop classic "Madame Butterfly" and, of course, it was transposed to Vietnam for the bore-fest MISS SAIGON.

1900, Nagasaki: American sailor Lt Pinkerton marries a 15 year-old girl called Cio-Cio-San whose family have fallen on hard times after her father committed an honour suicide.  The US Consul Sharpless tries to stop Pinkerton from going through with the contract - arranged with the oily marriage broker Goro - but the Lieutenant has no qualms about saying he will get married 'properly' when he returns to America. After the ceremony, Cio-Cio-San's uncle appears to announce to her family that she has betrayed them by secretly becoming a Christian which causes them all to desert her, leaving her alone with her-seemingly loving husband.

Three years later, Cio-Cio-San waits unfailingly for Pinkerton to return as he left Japan soon after the marriage.  Cared for by faithful servant Suzuki, she fends off Goro who is trying to marry her off again and is visited by Sharpless who tells her that Pinkerton's ship is returning.  He also has a letter from Pinkerton telling Cio-Cio-San that he has brought with him his new American wife Kate but the Consul cannot break the news as she is so happy to hear of her husband's return and she surprises him with her 2 year-old son who Pinkerton knows nothing about; Cio-Cio-San stays up through the night just in case Pinkerton arrives home.

Suzuki entreats her to sleep in the morning so she misses the arrival of Sharpless with Pinkerton and Kate who are now aware of the existence of the son.  Pinkerton, overcome with shame, cannot face his first wife and it is left to Suzuki, Sharpless and Kate to persuade her that the marriage is over and to relinquish her son to be raised in America.  Cio-Cio-San realizes that her dream of love is over and agrees to hand over her son, but only to Pinkerton...  She leaves her son outside blindfolded and holding an American flag then retrieves one of her few possessions - her father's suicide dagger....

Now in it's 14th year, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's production was sleek and cool, maybe a bit too much to truly ignite the emotions in the piece, that was left to the unbridled passion of Puccini's score which sounded wonderful under the conducting of Antonio Pappano.

Albanian-born Ermonela Jaho was a tempest-tossed Cio-Cio-San and certainly sang her testing arias well, I just didn't feel particularly connected to her as a character.  Scott Hendricks as the put-upon Sharpless and Elizabeth Deshong as the faithful Suzuki were both excellent in their roles and Marcelo Puente played and sang the difficult role of the awful Pinkerton well.  The supporting performances of Carlo Bosi, Yuriy Yurchuk and Emily Edmonds as Goro, Prince Yamadori and Kate Pinkerton also stayed in the mind.

The performance was being shown live in cinemas on the night we went and I was only mildly disappointed that the filming in no way impinged on the actual show.  I was *hugely* disappointed instead by the shambolic scenes in the bar in the interval when 55 minutes was evidently not long enough for the bar staff to get the pre-paid interval drinks out properly.  Cue mulish attitude from the one bar staff assigned to fulfill the orders and me losing my rag at the petulant sod and the overbearing cow who was attempting to push in ahead of me.  Constant Reader, Mr Puccini's music calmed me down in the second half you will be pleased to hear...

I am really pleased to have finally seen MADAMA BUTTERFLY onstage in such a good production and hope the journey into appreciating the form will continue - next up is TURANDOT in July again at the Opera House... I can only hope that they keep the drama to the stage and not in the bar again!

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