“Madama Butterfly”, a perennial favorite with the opera-going public, seems to be, for good or ill, immune to large-scale meddling from directors attempting to impose their own reading on, what is by opera standards, a well-known story. Rarely do productions step outside late 19th/early 20th century Japan, replete with kanzashi hairstyles, colorful kimonos and obi, houses with paper walls adorned with cherry blossom over the entrances, with well-placed bonsai trees and ornate bridges over water features. Not that this has, of course, in any way dimmed audiences’ enthusiasm for Puccini’s masterpiece, with its glorious and easily accessible music, along with its numerous opportunities to view the great divas displaying their artistry.
However, as this historical epoch fades further into the past, and the fascination Japan held over Europeans in the latter half of the 19th century is lost, this type of production is becoming increasingly jaded, and its stereotypical images are weighing more heavily upon the work, leading to “Madama Butterfly” becoming overly sentimental and irrelevant. Moreover, the situation has not been helped by Puccini himself, who as a master in the art of stagecraft, took every opportunity to squeeze the last drop of emotion from the piece. Think of Butterfly’s emotionally powerful suicide scene, which on its own is enough to induce tears from the audience. Puccini, however, realizing that it is possible to ratchet up the emotions further, has the young blindfolded child present on stage as a witness to his mother’s death.
Yet, “Madama Butterfly” is anything but sentimental. It is verismo in its true sense, representing the real life tragedy of a normal young girl. It deals with the deep and genuine love of one person for another, who, owing to the gulf in power that exists in their relationship, is mercilessly exploited. Puccini’s music, with consummate brilliance, explores the emotional strength inherent in Butterfly’s love, and the emotional rollercoaster she has been set upon, along with her eventual destruction.
The music does, however, present another problem: Puccini makes extensive use of pentatonic tunes and quotations from Japanese folk melodies to infuse the work with local color, but in doing so ties it irrevocably to Japan, and therefore, any attempt to set the opera outside a Japanese context will encounter substantial difficulties in creating a convincing production. The very real problem, therefore, faced by today’s directors is how to uncover the real personal drama which lies at the heart of “Madama Butterfly” and set it free from an old fashioned and stereotypical view of Japan which reeks of sentimentality.
No More Clichés
For this production of “Madama Butterfly” La Fenice employed the celebrated Japanese artist, Mariko Mori, as scenographer and costume designer. The choice of Mariko Mori is, indeed, a very interesting choice, as much of her work has been focused on the transformation of consciousness, its relationship to death and self, as well as thematic connections that relate the ancient to the futuristic, in a Japanese context. The Spanish director, Alex Rigola, responsible for bringing this production to the stage, visualized his role as fusing the eternal that lies at the heart of Mori’s vision with Puccini’s real-life drama of the young girl from Nagasaki. In doing so, Mori and Rigola, moved the drama to a non-time specific age, and thus, relieved the work of all its pre-modern Japanese trappings. The overall effect has been to successfully elevate the personal drama at the heart of “Madama Butterfly” and rescue it from any hint of sentimentality or kitsch.
Gone are the traditional costumes, cherry blossoms, ornate gardens and torii. In their place, we are presented with an empty white stage which rises at the back. During the intermezzo, at the beginning of Act three, images of the cosmos are projected upon a stage-length screen, while Butterfly keeps her all-night vigil at the side, staring into the eternal heavens, her child and her maid, Suzuki, asleep in front, on the floor. The stage is in darkness and onto the screen is projected the dark blue universe upon which we watch a star collapse, followed by an asteroid shower and the emergence of a gaseous cloud from which two galaxies evolve, and then engage in a cosmic dance before combining as one, and finally disappearing; we have moved beyond Butterly’s individual drama and are presented with the eternal longing, the tensions, and love between people, along with the inevitability of death that define our existence, whether it be at the unconscious individual level or at the macro level of the cosmos. The scene was very powerful and communicated its ideas in a deep and meaningful, yet easily accessible manner.
Generally, however, the sets were defined by their open spaces. Act one has three circular flat stones on the stage, otherwise, it remained empty. A black sculptured design, suggestive of the mathematical symbol for infinity, was suspended above the stage, directing the audience’s thoughts towards the eternal. In Act two, the stage was dominated by a variation on the sculpture from the previous act, which again symbolized the defining concept of the production. Otherwise, the only items present on the stage were a bonsai tree (the only overt reference to Japan) and a small glass circle, representing the circular nature of existence, to which Suzuki offered her prayers. Act three was an empty stage in which only the small glass circle remained. The costumes were clearly Japanese inspired, but futuristic in design. The colors were dominated by pastoral shades, which from a purely aesthetic perspective created some beautifully balanced scenes. These were further enhanced by the lighting, designed by Albert Faura, who contrasted the calm pastoral coloring with lighting which darkened to reflect Butterfly’s emotional state. Although heavily stylized, the overall effect successfully evoked a Japanese ambiance without ever placing it in a particular period, and thus, gave the production a timeless quality in which its latent sentimentality was thankfully absent, and successfully highlighted the nature of the human condition.
Regardless of how successful the director and his team have been in bringing the opera to the stage the production will stand or fall by the standard of its musical performance, and in this it was more than adequately served by some sparkling performances. In the role of Butterfly was Serena Farnocchia, with Vicenzo Costanzo as Pinkerton. Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, was played by Manuela Custer, Sharpless, the U.S. Counsel, by Luca Grassi and Pinkerton’s wife, Kate, by Julie Mellor. Cristiano Oliveri played Goro, Armando Gabba played Prince Yamadori and Bonzo was performed by Christian Saitta. The Orchestra Del Teatro La Fenice was under the direction of Daniele Callegari.
Stepping in to replace the scheduled Monica Zenettin, Serena Farnocchia produced a dazzling portrayal as Cio-Cio San. Rarely is one lucky enough to witness such an intense and dramatically satisfying portrayal; Farnocchia really lived the part! She possesses a strong, flexible soprano, which she used expertly to illuminate Butterfly’s inner emotional turmoil, as she battles against hope and the forces which combine to abuse her, whilst always seeking to retain the human dignity, which she never abandons. The high point of her performance was the vocally and emotionally demanding central act. After a beautiful presentation of “Un bel dì,” in which she displayed the natural lyricism of her voice, along with her delicate phrasing and dynamic control, she embarked upon the emotional turmoil of coping with visits from Sharpless, Goro and her suitor, Yamadori, and finally the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship in the harbor. By turn, she is thrown between joy and hope, as Sharpless reads to her Pinkerton’s letter; anger and humiliation, as Goro persistently pushes upon her another husband, while sneering at her poverty and marriage to Pinkerton; desperation and hurt as Sharpless asks her what she will do if Pinkerton never returns; and hope and joy as she recognizes Pinkerton’s ship in the harbor. Farnocchia transitions between the emotional states with ease, using all her vocal and acting skills to bring about a convincing and engrossing reading, coloring each line with real pathos and poignancy. If there was one point that detracted slightly from her portrayal, it was that during the first act she failed to bring the necessary naivety to the role, which meant that in Acts two and three, the older Butterfly was not sufficiently differentiated, and thus did not reflect the increased maturity and experience that marriage, childbirth, and abandonment would have brought to her character.
Unfortunately, Costanzo’s portrayal of Pinkerton did not hit the same heights. Overall, his performance lacked consistency. He has a warm sumptuous middle register, which he used to great effect, producing a lyrical and enticing sound that really did delight. His phrasing was subtle and nuanced. However, in his upper register, he struggled to maintain the same quality, the voice sometimes sounding a bit thin and reedy. Moreover, he lacked the power of the ardent lover and was occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra. His aria “Dovunque al mondo” passed by without creating much of a stir and lacked the necessary impact, but the Act one closing duet with Butterfly, “Viene la sera…” was well sung, the pair combining well to produce a convincing rendition. They brought the act to an emotionally fulfilling conclusion. Furthermore, Costanzo’s portrayal of Pinkerton as overly shallow and superficial was too easy and made his reaction to Butterfly’s suicide appear somewhat staged.
Butterfly’s loyal maid-servant, Suzuki, was portrayed as an older woman, taking on the role of the eternal quasi-mother figure, connected to the ancient gods, which gave the genuine concern she holds for Cio-Cio San an understandable motive. Custer played the role with great dignity, suffering alongside her mistress and protecting her to the best of her ability. Her singing was refined and perfectly suited to the role, her sensitive phrasing and dark timbre giving an air of authority, and adding to the characterization.
Grassi put in a splendid performance as Sharpless. In particular, his singing was of a very high standard. He possesses a warm baritone, which he employs with a variety of colors and dynamic shadings, on top of which, his diction is beautifully clear. Although his acting was not up to the same standard he more than compensated for this with his vocal talents, and created a Sharpless who was both sympathetic, yet simultaneously distant in equal measure.
Goro, who is a thoroughly dislikable individual in his role as the manipulative marriage-broker, was played by Oliveri in this vein, but occasionally he went too far in this direction and ended up going against the aesthetic and the concept of the production. We were presented with a con-man, complete with the requisite mannerisms and red-lensed glasses, which tied him too closely with a specific time period, and this did not sit well with the overall production. Vocally, however, Oliveri, performed well, despite the occasional misplaced note.
The minor roles were performed uniformly well. Mellor’s hated Kate Pinkerton, dressed in blue evening dress, to highlight her total alienation from all that was unfolding before her, was severe and ice-cold in all her dealings with Cio-Cio San and Suzuki. Butterfly’s Uncle Bonzo, played by Saitta, brought a real presence to the part and suitably terrified the wedding guests with his deeply resonant and powerful bass. Gabba’s Prince Yamadori lacked a certain regal air, but was suitably dislikable, and was sung convincingly.
The chorus, under the direction of Claudio Marino Moretti, performed to their usual high standards. Although having the chorus enter from the back of the auditorium and then having it perform the “humming chorus” standing around the sides was not successful. Not only did its entrance and exits distract from the stage, but depending on where one was sitting, it was possible to experience a very distorted performance.
Callegari produced a powerful and energetic performance from the Orchestra Del Teatro La Fenice, which drove the showcase forward, allowing it, where appropriate, to fill the theatre with unrestrained fortissimo. The reading, with its sometimes dense, sometimes light textures, supported and enhanced the onstage emotional turmoil perfectly, although it occasionally sacrificed a certain degree of detail in the process.
Overall, this “Madama Butterfly” is a thrilling production and the perfect antidote for opera goers who chafe at the sentimentality often to be found in Puccini’s works. That includes me.