Royal Opera House 2021-22 Review: Madama Butterfly
Lianna Haroutounian & Freddie De Tommaso Shine in Puccini MasterworkBy Mike Hardy
Undeniably the big story of this production of the Royal Opera House’s “Madama Butterfly,” as directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, was that revival director Daniel Dooner would work to create a dialogue around the work’s most problematic aspects.
Such a program involved extensive instruction workshops designed to teach the cast playing Japanese characters how to move, act, laugh, dress and adopt key poses and mannerisms in order to eradicate negative stereotyping. Whether these modifications are perceptible to the viewing public remains to be seen, although I would respectfully suggest that only the most observant cognoscente would notice them.
In fairness, there is no amount of makeovers that can mask what is, inarguably, a most insalubrious plot: American Naval Officer buys house, along with 15-year-old Geisha Cio-Cio San in an arranged marriage, persuading her to disown her religion and adopt his in the process. He unknowingly impregnates the Geisha before abandoning her and marrying someone else back home. He then returns to procure the, then, 3-year-old child when made aware of his existence, leading Cio-Cio San to commit suicide. No-one lives happily ever after.
This story, quaintly described as being “of its time,” has long created furore from critics and whilst the Royal Opera House revisions may go some way to augmenting respect for Japanese culture, the accusations of its misogyny, cultural appropriation, American Imperialism, child sexual exploitation and racism are, understandably, going to persist.
Two Musical & Dramatic Giants
That said, this is, MUSICALLY at least, a gourmet feast for the ears and senses, pretty much right across the board.
Puccini made the role of Cio-Cio-San, (Madama Butterfly), a most challenging and demanding role for the soprano. Armenian Lianna Haroutounian proves to be more than a match for that challenge, turning a passionate and most powerful performance throughout. Haroutounian is manifestly unconvincing as a 15-year-old. She nonetheless displayed a touching and occasionally endearingly comical Butterfly who managed to portray an almost childlike vulnerability and innocence.
Her duet in the first act with Pinkerton was quite magical in her vocal expressiveness as she allowed herself to succumb to his advances. Her delivery of “Vogliatemi bene, un bene piccolino, un bene da bambino” was particularly heart melting,
Later, in the famous aria “Un Bel di Vedroma” where she insists that her lover will return, the climatic “Tienti la tua paura, io con sicura fede l’aspetto” is quite breathtaking in its ardent delivery.
With all hope and purpose lost, Cio-Cio-San’s final, tragic act of self-destruction was virtually unbearable to watch. Her flailing, kimono draped arms emulated the flapping wings of a butterfly as petals from the cherry blossom tree fell with poignant symbolism. Such was the emotional intensity and visceral effect of the scene that I was genuinely concerned for the small child actor, portraying her son, towards whom the dying Butterfly was crawling. Fortunately, he remained facing away from her, waiving his small American stick-flag and although he was, ostensibly, supposed to be blindfolded, I can’t help thinking he was under strict instruction offstage NOT to turn around and witness any of the disturbing display unfolding.
When the curtain rose again, permitting Haroutounian her curtain call, the place erupted with a unanimous standing ovation that visibly moved her.
The architect of Cio-Cio-San’s abject misery, Lieutenant B.F Pinkerton is played here by Anglo-Italian super tenor in waiting, Freddie De Tommaso. De Tommaso, born and raised in Tunbridge Wells, trained in drama before music and on this showing it certainly seemed to enhance his approach to his role to no end, boldly strolling around the stage in Act one with an almost tangible, arrogant indifference and air of superciliousness whilst deliberating his affairs with, firstly Goro, his broker and matchmaker and secondly, Sharpless, the US Consul. He subsequently delivered an entirely plausible act of being genuinely enamored by Butterfly in their love duet, before producing a compelling portrayal of total remorse and pain upon realization of the consequences of his behavior, in the third act
His “Viene la Sera” duet with Butterfly was exquisite at turns, particularly his phrasing, and he sang “Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malìa” with notable passion. His “Addio, fiorito asil” in the final act was imbued with much palpable anguish and remorse, the final passages, including the phrase “ah! son vil, ah! son vil!” uttered with Caruso-esque sobs before making his dramatic stage exit. He sings with a beautiful, inarguable Italianate quality, his utterances occasionally redolent of Franco Corelli’s, yet occasionally his light, lilting sobs reminiscent of a young José Carreras. Interestingly, he initially trained as a baritone and in some of his early exchanges with Sharpless, (a baritone), in the lower register, the timbres were barely distinguishable between the voices.
The character of Pinkerton is nigh on impossible to defend, the tragic consequences of his actions too extreme to assuage. Some years ago, here in this very production, I witnessed American tenor James Valenti being universally booed at the curtain call where he affected an apologetic pose. There were a few light-hearted boos on this occasion, too, but they were completely outnumbered by the raucous applause and cheers De Tommaso received here, testament to his commanding acting as well as to his singing.
Lucas Meachem, as the U.S. Consul Sharpless is a real tour de force here, as well as cutting a very dashing figure. His charisma goes some way to mitigate the accusations of American Imperialism frequently levied at this opera, as well as serving to almost minimise Pinkerton’s appalling behaviour. He brings both compassion and empathy to the role, as well as touches of self-deprecating wit. His attempts to impart his wisdom on the reckless Pinkerton are admirable and his empathy and rapport with Butterfly are entirely endearing. He was especially charming in his reading of the letter to Butterfly in the 2nd Act, where firstly he, comically, struggled to sit cross-legged on the floor in traditional manner before his comical admonishments of Cio-Cio-San during his reluctant attempts to get across the dire contents of the message were frequently interrupted by her child-like interjections.
His voice is quite majestic; resplendent, rich and sonorous that cut across the all too frequent brash orchestra where other voices occasionally couldn’t. His beautiful tone was clarion throughout, his interactions in the 3rd act before Pinkerton’s cowardly exit, where his “Vel dissi? vi ricorda? Quando la man vi diede,” were particularly satisfying.
The ever-faithful, ever attendant maid Suzuki was performed on this occasion by replacement Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Kseniia Nikolaieva, who joined the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the start of the 2020-21 Season. In this, one of her first major roles, she shows much promise, singing with real beauty and conviction. Her ‘”Il cannone del porto!” duet with her Mistress was sublime, allowing her to show off her gorgeous, dark resonance. Her devotion to Cio-Cio-San and her angst at her Mistresses’ refusal to accept the truth of her situation was utterly convincing and, in turn, heart rending.
Cio-Cio-San’s ardent admirer, Prince Yamadori, is portrayed by Mexican tenor Alan Pingarrón, another member of the Jette Parker Programme. His brief, rather whimsical character isn’t meant to be too engaging but his “Addio. Vi lascio il cuor pien di cordoglio: ma spero ancor…” was rather touching and left me wanting to hear more of his splendid tenor.
Spieltenor Alexander Kravets gets to ham it up as Goro, a Marriage broker or “matchmaker,” whose early exchanges with Pinkerton establish his credentials as a pimp and general “wideboy.” His characterful tenor voice and mannerisms manage to exude slyness that interacts perfectly with Pinkerton’s arrogance and swaggering in the opening scenes.
English bass Jeremy White performs as Bonze, The Buddhist Priest, who gets to spoil the wedding between Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton by way of dramatic intervention to inform Butterfly she is being ostracized for abandoning her religion. Beautifully rich in voice, he is quite perturbing in his condemnations.
EQUALLY perturbing, at times, was the orchestra under the direction of Dan Ettinger, although he did manage to elicit some strikingly emotive, wafting beauty from the strings section for much of the Act one love duet, from “Vieni La Sera.” Likewise, at times, the brass and percussion were used to create effective drama by way of great fortissimos, when Butterfly realizes Pinkerton’s ship is returning, and in her final, tragic scenes. But on far too many occasions the ensemble seemed to lose its rhythm, occasionally hurrying the score, and frequently performing with such vigor and over-enthusiasm as to overpower the singers completely. The final passages of the love duet in Act one by Butterfly and Pinkerton could scarcely be heard amongst the brashness of the orchestra.
Conversely, the chorus appeared to be rather short, either in numbers or in volume. The famous “Humming Chorus” lacked any real clarity or sharpness and appeared rather perfunctory.
Minimalist staging by Christian Fenouillat was simple, most effective and at times, gorgeous, particularly when combined with some clever and beguiling lighting by Christophe Forey. The set is basically a minka with tatami flooring and very clever sliding rear panels that operate vertically AND horizontally. Rectangular shaped lights that manoeuvre on the floor tend to be distracting at times, but reveal themselves to be creating clever shapes, particular at the end of the first act. Evocative, soft, spotlight illumination creates intense atmosphere when Butterfly, her child and Suzuki settle to await the arrival of Pinkerton at the end of act 2 and a foreboding silhouette of Kate Pinkerton is employed to an almost Hitchcockian effect, back lit against one of the rear panels.
However, the British East & South East Asians in the Screen & Stage Industry (BEATS), one of the groups that made a major contribution to the revamping of this production, remains far from happy with this production, citing the lack of genuine Asian artists both as major characters and in the chorus.
But despite those shortcomings, this work featured some fine musicianship across the board reminding that alongside this questionable libretto is some of the finest music ever conceived.