Sunday 22 March 2015

Madama Butterfly: Royal Opera House 2015 ★★★★

© The Royal Opera House
This Friday [20th March] was the opening night of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s 2011 revival production of Madama Butterly, which brought audiences to tears. Following a tremendous portrayal of a troubled Manon in a‘tight fitted, bust improvising pink corset’ in last year’s controversialproduction of Manon Lescaut, Latvian Soprano, Kristine Opolais, gave a dramatic performance as a naïve Cio-Cio san with the vocal heft that made it one of her best nights at Covent Garden.

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly - based on a 15-year-old ex-geisha who falls in love with a chauvinist American, that leaves her with a love child unbeknown to him - is ranked as the 7th most popular opera in the world. According to co-director, Leiser, ‘it is a very important story to tell’ and many would agree. The revival production, directed by Justin Way, embodies the tragedy of Madama Butterfly through Japanese simple architectural design, lavishly made kimonos by Agostino Cavalca, and Japanese cultural values including patience and graciousness. 

Christian Fenouillat’s minimal set design of subtle sliding doors and large panels convey Cio-Cio san’s enclosure from the outside world: her heritage, religion and, most of all, her family. Act I reveals a picturesque backdrop of Nagasaki: a mountainous beauty, as the wedding ceremony commences. Yet as the Bonze (Jeremy White) utters his curse on Cio Cio san Nagasaki is no more. Her family, sung by the Royal Opera Chorus, walk over the image of Nagasaki as they sing in outrage, ‘Cio-Cio-san’ and abandon her for ever. 
© The Royal Opera House

For Leiser and Caurier, the opera presents a cynical ‘American imperialist view on Japanese culture’ where such characters as Pinkerton ‘do not consider Japanese culture as valid.’ It is a ‘dark work’ that captures an unfortunate situation that happens repeatedly to many women in the world. The sadness lies in the virtuousness of Cio-Cio san whose illusory beliefs depend on her apparent American husband. With an unexpected child in the mix the operatic drama is amplified, gripping the hearts of many young mothers in the audience. 

Even Opolais can empathise with this heartrending tale being a mother of a three-year-old. She stated how emotionally taxing and challenging the role of Cio-Cio san can be in an interview with Latin Post . Recently she told Rupert Christiansen, [Cio-Cio san] knows that her child is going to be taken away from her and that for me is what makes the agony of the tragedy.’ 

Under the baton of Nicola Luisotti, the music director of San Francisco Opera and the Teatro di San Carlo, the Royal Opera House Orchestra gave a resoundingly rich musical performance of Puccini’s much-loved opera. Having never seen Luisotti in action before, watching him was like watching, something out of, a movie. His delicate, classic and, almost, cinematic conducting style was a sight to marvel as was his love for Puccini, which was oozing audibly out of the pit. 
@ The Royal Opera House
Making his debut at the Royal Opera House, as bad boy Pinkerton, was ‘fresh off the boat’ American Tenor, Brian Jagde. Pinkerton only hangs around for the first act, but, for this, Jagde gave a convincing performance of a man who had fallen for an exotic creature as he sung, ‘I’m marrying Japanese style for 999 years.’ His voice has an exquisite vibrato, which is disarming even if the words he sang were not genuine. I hope we get to see him again in another production at Covent Garden.

Enkelejda Shkosa, who sang as Suzuki, added spice and a little kick to her characterisation of Cio-Cio san’s maid. She presented a tougher version of Suzuki. In the flower duet Il cannone del porto! with Opolais, her sweet vocal accompaniment seemed also deluded with hope of Pinkerton’s return, which made the audience sigh.

Gabriele Viviani sang as Sharpless after having sung the role of Pinkerton in the original production. Here, he exudes the remorse and guilt of being the go-between, but, unfortunately, did not present much luster or sheen in his voice. Carlo Bosi as Goro gave a theatrical performance of a corrupt Japanese marriage broker. Dressed in a fabulous semi-Western, semi-Japanese design, he concocted a Goro we would learn to hate and sang pleasant enough, even though he played a villain.
© The Arts Desk

The long intermission that shifts Act II to Act III, where Opolais waits motionless for her husbands’ return, sees no action on stage, and the opera may seem to drag. The audience have to depend on Luisotti’s waving arms and swaying body to gather some visual momentum. But the humming chorus is a gem in itself - it never fails to please Puccini fans whist preparing for the ultimate death scene.

Opolais triumphed on the opening night. She created an intense and emotional evening for many. As she sung Butterfly's heart breaking finale aria, Con onor muore , I was reminded of her last performance singing as the dying Manon in Sola, perduta, abbandonata. Towards the final act, many sniffles and fiddly tissues were heard from the audience. With an excellent choice of cast for the Royal Opera House’s 396th performance of Madam Butterfly, it was, perhaps, the most dramatic portrayal of Madam Pinkerton I had ever seen. 

(I had a distraught and upsetting experience at the finale. Luckily I didn’t get any tears on my pink Kimono, which, by the way, I was the only one wearing. sheesh!)
The production is showing until April 11th. Please have a look at the site as tickets are selling out fast.

Other Reviews:
Madam Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall @LDNCARD - Currently showing (2015)
Relay Screening of Madam Butterfly by Opera Australia (2014)

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