When the current production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly premiered in 2003, I remember being startled at how stark the production seemed, with its clean horizontal lines and open spaces. Very different indeed from the over-stuffed, over-fussy clutter of fin de siècle clichés about Japan. Western Japonisme as decorative wrapping has little to do with reality. Madama Butterfly is a powerful opera because it deals with real human dilemmas, by no means unique to Japan or to the early 20th century.
Instead, this production, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, uses the Japanese context intelligently so it works with the drama. Japanese art is stylized, blank spaces part of the design, so key details stand out in sharp focus. The sets in this production, designed by Christian Fenouillat, are clean and open, so there's no irrelevant distraction. The backdrop of shoji screens allows quick scene changes, contrasting the interior with the vast panorama outside. It's a telling comment. As Goro points out, changing the walls changes perspective. This opera isn't really "about" Japanese society as much as about the way people don't perceive things in the same way.
As Caurier and Leiser said in a recent interview, Madama Butterfly is "not a beautiful story, it’s awful, it’s violent. Yes, you see the flowers but you must have the smell of blood running through them”. Throughout history, those with wealth and power have always been able to exploit those who don't. Pinkerton buys a package, house, servants, mock family and girl to use as sexual covenience. He's infatuated temporarily by Butterfly's beauty but he's under no illusion that he's interested in her other than as an object to gratify his ego. Perhaps that's why he takes the child. He can't concieve that its mother or culture mean anything.
Butterfly is so desperate to escape her background that even before she meets Pinkerton, she's obsessed about becoming an instant American. She invests so much in her delusion that she can't cope with reality. She kills herself, not simply because harakiri "is" custom, but because she's invested so much into her fixation that she can't live with reality. "....nulla, nulla, fuor che la morte".
Although this is the third revival of this production since 2003, the performace felt fresh because it was directed, not by substitutes but by Leiser and Caurier themselves. Every performance has to be "new" because casts change and circumstances change. Patricia Racette, who has sung Cio Cio San many times before, pulled out at the last minute, but in some ways that was fortunate, because Kristine Opolais, making her Royal Opera House debut, throws herself so convincingly into the part that she makes it her own. She's young enough to convey Butterfly's innocence but has strength of personality, which comes through in her singing. She sings the love duet with such intensity that you wonder how a 15 year old could find such passion, especially for a stranger she's just met. This emphasizes Butterfly's single-minded determination. Reality doesn't get in the way of imagination.
Opolais's Butterfly is wonderfully varied. After the Bonze's curse, her voice takes on a tense edge, showing that Butterfly is deeply traumatized. Then she switches quickly back to sweetness when she turns to Pinkerton. Swift reactions, for Cio Cio San is always adapting, and living intensely in the moment. Opolais genuinely interacts with Dolore (Niklas Allan). She's not singing to an object, or a puppet, but as real mother to real child. Madama Butterflies stand and fall on Un bel di vedremo, and Opolais conveys complete emotional engagement. She's not merely describing a sequence of events, but how they feel to her. An interesting voice, with good range, and a natural acting singer. She's a regular at the Berlin Staatsoper, where she'll be singing Butterfly in March 2012.
James Valenti as Lt. Pinkerton is rather less successful, although he has had the role in his repertoire for years. Arguably, Pinkerton is emotionally more buttoned up than many men, but Puccini builds a lot more into the part than repression. Perhaps further into the run, Valenti's voice may blossom, and hopefully be preserved at its best in the film that's being released on BP Big Screen and cinemas on 4th July. Anthony Michaels-Moore sang Sharpless with warmth, for the Consul is a figure of reasonableness in this claustrophobic world of extremes.
From the vigour with which Robin Leggate sang Goro, it was hard to believe that he's retiring after the end of this production, his 909th performance at the Royal Opera House, since 1977. This Goro is directed so he moves swiftly, reflecting the character's quick wits and cunning. Leggate sings with unflagging energy, despite having to be fleet of foot.
Similarly, Helene Schneiderman's Suzuki was vibrant and expressive. There's a lot more to this role than mere servant. Suzuki can be cocky, although she's loyal. Cio Cio San isn't completely the mistress even at home. Schneiderman intones her prayer to the gods so forcefully that when she sings with Butterfly, you pick up on the undercurrent of tension even that exists in their relationship. Suzuki's gods will win, Cio Cio san hasn't a chance.
Buddhists don't normally curse people, and in Japan, Buddhism co-exists with Shinto quite happily. Buddhists have a lot in common with Christians too. This Bonze is a figment of Puccini's imagination, created to inject extreme panic, smashing forever Cio Cio San's links with her past. Perhaps that's why in this production, he appears all-white, like an apparition of a ghost from a Japanese horror story, not as a living monk. Jeremy White's Bonze bursts onto the scene, screaming violently, striking terror. Great theatre, as Puccini must have intended.
Zhengzhong Zhou sings Prince Yamadori and Daniel Grice sings the Imperial Commisioner. Both impressed, proving how the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme nurtures singers in good directions. Yamadori is an interesting role which could be developed more than it usually is. Why would a prince marry a second-hand geisha, and one who's been cursed for consorting with foreigners? He rides a carriage up the steep hill, whereas everyone else in this opera walks. Why would a man of that status humiliate himself by divesting all his other wives? Zhou sings the part with tenderness, creating a sincere Yamadori who is emotionally honest and vulnerable though he has all the trappings of power. Pinkerton in reverse?
Over the years, I've grown to appreciate this production for its depth and sensitivity, and would heartily recommend it to anyone who really wants to understand the human - and political - story Puccini might be trying to tell us, beneath the surface gloss. FULL review with photos and cast details, etc in Opera Today