Welsh National Opera 2021-22 Review: Madam Butterfly
Joyce El-Khoury Gives Heartbreaking Turn in Questionable Take on Puccini’s OperaBy John Vandevert
On Oct. 28, The Welsh National Opera, to a packed Hippodrome, performed its modernized rendition of the Puccinian classic and arguably one of the most controversial operas in the 21st c. canon, “Madam Butterfly.”
Notwithstanding the opera’s subject matter, an Asian girl of 15 being coaxed into an international marriage with a man very much her senior while also being asked to disavow her own culture only to be abandoned with a child and pushed to suicide, accompanying the rise of what I call “-ism culture,” what was previously an uncontentious and (following its first version and ubiquitous fifth version) wildly successful opera has become the subject of incendiary complaints.
Many argue that it’s culturally insensitive and downright racist in its “Orientalist” depiction of Japanese culture, while others badger Puccini on the pretenses of musical Exoticism, a now frowned-upon musical habit, and some (many) even chide the opera for its blatant misogyny. Unfortunately, this production’s philosophy doesn’t shy away from such skewed debates either, and the commissioned Director Lindy Hume does a hell of a job at erasing almost everything that could cause offense to the softer among us all in the name of emphasizing the “basic themes” of the opera in order to make them “even more emotionally impactful.” As a lover of Puccini, I can say that while noble, this isn’t something to be praised.
Nevertheless, as part of the Autumn 2021 season, paired with Rossini’s seria/buffa comic-opera “Barber of Seville,” having been long-due for an operatic refresh since Joachim Herz’s 1978 version, this operatic marvel of quintessential verismo grandeur served as a fitting accompaniment to the effervescent Bel Canto jewel. Butterfly’s newest form, a commissioned project given to the seasoned and well-received Lindy Hume, repositions the dramatic focus from a sorrowful tale with eloquent music onto bolstering focus on Cio-Cio-San and her maturation from bucolic adolescent to heart-broken woman. Marriage for her meant financial freedom, societal status, and existential purpose. So as stated by WNO General Director Aiden Lang, “as we contemplate issues of representation on stage in a multi-cultural society and look with open eyes at the true nature of the exploitation of its central character, seeing parallels between her plight and that of innumerable young women today.” This production focused on how Butterfly’s position in society changed, and how she was changed with it.
Hume’s postmodernism Butterfly via a “dystopian prism,” while questionable in its aesthetic choices, was filled with operatic all-stars of all varieties like internationally-recognized spinto tenor Leonardo Caimi (Pinkerton), composer Tom Randle (Goro), the mathematician-turned-opera singer Mark Stone (Sharpless), and old-school/new-school royalty like famed Joyce El-Khoury (Cio-Cio-San) and Helen Jarmany (Suzuki). Led under the baton of esteemed Conductor Carlo Rizzi, who brings with him a similar understanding to Hume of what “Butterfly” [by extension Puccini] is trying to teach us through the music in his statement, “the young girl looking up to the ‘savior’ Pinkerton, the abandoned woman and single mother, the shameful person that kills herself because she could not keep ‘honor’ in her life.”
This production’s musical life was without a doubt some of the finest examples of verismo “new-style” singing I’ve heard in a while. In the title role of Butterfly was the Lebanese-Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury, a bona fide master of every possible shade her instrument has to offer it seems. Her beautiful voice rings out as one gorged on a historical education of the fundamentals of “Beautiful singing,” however seamlessly integrated with the ardent flame of emotional integrity, and an unapologetic taste for urbane dramatism which sets her apart from many high-profile singers today. I liken her incredible musical intelligence to that of a contemporary bastion of Bel canto verisimilitude, where technical prowess and intrepid emotionality are effortlessly married together, however one never dilapidating under the weight of its brethren nor outpacing the other. El-Khoury’s seemingly innate lyrical verbosity, unflappable musical accuracy, and cogent delivery of Italianate prosody signal an exciting vein in classical singing today.
While every aria, duet, and dynamic interaction bespoke virtuosity incarnate, it was the lush, palatine duet “Bimba, Bimba, non piangere” and following numbers (especially “Vogliatemi bene”) that solidified the realization that El-Khoury is nothing short of an operatic star. Of course, “Un bel di vedremo” was an excruciatingly beautiful but very difficult aria to watch, as her natural adeptness at playing between musical and emotional extremes, sitting under the umbrella of unquestionable technique, created an environment where even breathing seemed too invasive. Then there was Act three, where her polished viscerality served her quite well.
Accompanying El-Khoury in the multifaceted role of Pinkerton was Italian-born Leonardo Caimi, a stellar example of the old-school/new-school vein still alive and well in the 21st century. Caimi’s stellar voice, a full-breasted yet supple instrument, in his rendition of the damned American is a mixture par excellence of austere, technical clarity saturated with emotional honesty and Bel canto dexterity. Like El-Khoury, his adamant lyricism and intrepid balance in all registers of his vocal faculties is something to be admired, especially as a spinto-leaning tenor whose repertoire extends in both directions with Mozart’s Requiem all the way to Bizet, Verdi, and the heavier sides of Puccini. It’s not immoderate to say that Caimi is, like El-Khoury, a contemporary bastion of Bel canto verisimilitude.
The sensuously robust nature of Caimi’s tenorial identity, with his proclivity towards artful phraseology and unsacrificed fluidity no matter the dramatic moment, posits him as a continuer of the dramatic, Bel canto tradition of tenorial exceptionality. Like El-Khoury, every moment his voice was gifted to us was phenomenal, but it was first and foremost “Amore o grillo,” our view into Pinkerton’s uncertainty around Cio-Cio-San, where his voice first inadvertently pronounced himself. The duet “Dovunque al mondo” with Sharpless, sung in suave accord by Mark Stone, was another moment of intelligent bravado, while his final aria “Addio, fiorito asil,” bespoke Caimi’s exceptional ability to cogently relay both superficial and unspoken emotional into sonic streams.
The mezzo-soprano Helen Jarmany excelled both musically and dramaturgically, whose portrayal of the level-headed Suzuki captured the taut complexities of her station in unassailable detail. While at the beginning, her voice tended to fall behind the orchestra and caused her to disappear at times, by Act two she had positioned herself as a Bel canto persona grata, especially during “The Flower Duet.” A display of operatic excellence, she effortlessly blended with El-Khoury and produced one of the opera’s most evocative moments. Another notable figure was the bass-baritone Neil Balfour, whose portrayal of Prince Yamadori was just enough to convince me that his imposing warmth and dark-tinged lyricism was in need of a much larger role. The Bonzo, sung by the stately Keel Watson, was fine, although the role doesn’t show much, while the Women’s Chorus was brilliant and prophetically angelic, especially in the tragic “Humming Chorus,” golden tears!
Rizzi’s Awkward Moment
I was going to overlook this for the sake of the review but it really must be stated, as I’ve never seen or witnessed this in my entire experience in the theatre. While the orchestra, led by Carlo Rizzi, was absolutely exceptional and Puccinian in every sense of the word, what occurred right at the tantalizing conclusion of the duet “Vogliatemi bene” was unacceptable. Due to the grandiosity of that cadential moment, the timpani and cymbals exploding in ecstasy as the fated lovers profess their mutual devotion, one can understand why some audience members would burst out into clapping before the last note was uttered. However, unlike other conductors who have dealt with this annoyance (I will admit), Rizzi took it upon himself to turn around and chastise the audience for clapping (including myself, I will also admit). Not only was this entirely inappropriate, given who the audience was and WNO’s long-winding relationship with Bristol, but it showed that he wasn’t entirely focused on the music and instead more focused on its reception.
This lapse of judgment put me off him the entire rest of the night, and cast a negative air over his reading of Puccini’s classic, despite Rizzi’s well-developed notion of the operatic semiotics. Whether or not the audience does forget operatic or symphonic decorum should not be a reason to openly denigrate them, like a schoolteacher scolding an unruly student. In the audience, there were mixed reactions to Rizzi’s episode of uncontrolled rage; some behind me were rather appalled at his behavior, while those in front of me blithely ignored it. Situations like these are relatively common, as opera houses are continuously trying to seek out, diversify, and reach unfamiliar audiences with their productions. Ergo, you shouldn’t be surprised if some house rules aren’t followed!
In short, Carlo Rizzi’s outburst is the reason why there is still a rigid hierarchy in operatic theatre, one that is in need of destruction. If you want new audiences, then you must actively update the rules that you apparently expect of them.
Hume’s Dystopian Take
Lindy Hume’s rendition of Butterfly was all about reflecting the world in which the opera inhabits today, bringing out the story about the perils of this girl at the hands of society, and bridging the gap between operatic dramaturgy, musical infatuation, and allegorical enlightenment. In WNO General Director Aidan Lang’s post about the production’s development, he begged the question of whether or not the original story was speaking to audiences, and if it needed a retuning? Well, his answer was clearly yes, and so Hume was brought in to humanize the opera, bring it back to “basics,” and reposition operatic intention in line with contemporary issues, the one chosen being the #MeToo movement.
Unfortunately, the way the company chose going about realizing the opera through a “contemporary lens” didn’t quite work. Nearly every single Asian (or Orientalist) element had been removed from the production, senza of course flowers, and replaced with white walls, postmodernist cubism, and aseptic minimalism alla Willy Decker 2010 which read not as sophisticated but just plain weird. Ostensibly inspired by the “landscapes of exotic pleasures,” Hume defined the East v. West through neo-futurist costuming (think Jetson-level kitschiness) for the East, replete with pink-curled, cone wigs, and 1950/60s garb for the West, mod-style dress and over-the-top lapels the aesthetic of choice. In Act one, human movements were pitted against robot-like surreality, although the reason why was not entirely clear, and it all came across as kitschy and unnecessary.
Fortunately, in Act two and three humanity started to creep in and Hume’s opera actually began. Her choice to use a McQueenian-style petticoat as the leitmotif for Cio-Cio-San’s slow descent into shame was incredibly effective, but the Silicon-Valley home aesthetic she used was simply ineffective in detailing anything remotely helpful about this girl’s fall into dejection. Lighting effects were responsible for pretty much everything good about this production’s scenery, and despite using projections during Act one that showed water and rose petals, the erasure of everything Asian raised more questions than it answered.