Cher Public

Uphill climb

As much as I adore Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, I fear her days are numbered. In a world of elevated awareness of how cultures are misappropriated, to say nothing of how women are compartmentalized and exploited, the pillars of this opera’s antiquated romanticism seem sure to buckle.

It is nothing more than an occidental male’s fantasy. Its complete lack of relevance to Japanese culture is evidenced by Liza Dalby whose anthropological study Geisha has been one of my treasured companions since it was published in 1983. She mentions it not once in the course of over 300 pages of her exhaustive and fascinating survey on that unique profession.

She does touch very briefly in the introduction on Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthème and Townsend Harris’ Okichi only to point out that neither of the main characters are actual Geisha and that their portrayal says more about Western sexual infatuations than anything else.

Still I recall vividly that Madama Butterfly was the first opera I listened to that moved me to tears (thank you Leontyne). The slow build in the last scene starting with Cio-Cio-San’s lullaby through to the reappearance of Lt, Pinkerton with his new wife in tow! Then Butterfly’s growing realization that she has lost her place in her own fairy-tale ending!

Puccini’s masterful writing of punctuated silences as each new door of comprehension swings open to reveal another loss to her honor can be a devastation in the hands of great theatrical interpreters. Which one of us has not felt the bottom drop out in our lives at one point or another?

Our compassion with Cio-Cio-San is about how much she loves, even if it is blindly, and wants to be loved in return. When she then makes the ultimate sacrifice so that her son can live her dream instead the outcome can wreak emotional destruction on its audience. The case has been made for Puccini as a sadist.

So when a new interpreter of Butterfly arrives on the scene she has to make that uphill climb dragging the ghosts of all the other Butterflys we’ve known and loved on the train of her kimono. You know we all have our favorites and we’re a judging bunch.

Butterflys tend to fall into the two categories that Ethan Morden outlined in his classic diva worship opus Demented: Stimm or kunst (voice or art) and it’s surprising how easily they all drop neatly into one or the other. For although Puccini’s geisha requires a veritable arsenal of vocal effects you don’t necessarily have to have a beautiful voice to succeed in the part.

The Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is surely the reason that Covent Garden has made a commercial release of this “Live to Cinemas” relay from March of 2017. She has enjoyed a special relationship with the British public since she stepped into the Royal Opera’s production of La Traviata in 2008 for Anna Netrebko.

She was subsequently cast in Richard Jones’ new production of Puccini’s Trittico in 2011 as Suor Angelica. She proved vibrant and heart-rending in the role and returned for its revival in 2016. In the interim she’s also been presented at Covent Garden as the same composer’s Manon Lescaut, Mimi, and Magda from La Rondine.

This production, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier and shared with the Gran Teatre del Liceu, has been much revived and broadcast since it first debuted 15 years ago. In 2012 it was even shown live in cinemas in 3D. One can only imagine what visual benefits were gleaned from that. I’m sure every opera house hopes for productions that can be easily revived around a star soprano and that will show her to the best advantage. I’m sorry to say I don’t think this is the case here.

The biggest problem is the set design of Christian Fenouillat which murders any sense of verisimilitude from the very first. I’m sure Covent Garden was thrilled to be able to momentarily repurpose all those louvered doors left over from Luc Bondy’s production of Salome but their utilization here in Act II with their being lifted and lowered (by magic, apparently, and not opening side-to-side like a shoji screen) makes it look like Butterfly resides in a massive parking garage.

The other obstacle is that you never know what visual you’re going to get when those garage doors open, The first vista appeared to be a vintage black & white photo of Nagasaki harbor. When the doors opened again for the wedding it was a heavily stylized Eyvind Earle-esque landscape of cherry blossom trees. Later reveals prove Cio-Cio-San’s unfortunate choice of gardener to be none other than Violet Venable.

An innocuous twinkling starscape was almost a relief at the close of Act I. Then the backlighting on the screens for the vigil goes all Mondrian. I would have been happy with any of these choices had they just stuck with one (…he said desperately). Instead it comes off like a bad mystery game show of the “Let’s Make a Deal” variety. Meanwhile I kept hoping Butterfly would win some furniture because her place is barren.

Antonio Pappano ambles into the pit with his mandarin collared shirt and proceeds to do a furious impersonation of a hermit crab during the prelude. He nonetheless whips the Covent Garden Orchestra into a veritable frenzy of playing. From the outset you can tell this isn’t going to be one of those “careful and considered” performances. Pappano goes in with guns blazing ready to squeeze every bit of juice out this piece that he possibly can. The players respond as if on steroids and no emotion goes un-wrung.

Carlo Bosi is the Goro and he’s less repugnant than usual at the beginning although still done up in Kabuki makeup to cover up his Italianism. As the opera progresses and his villainy increases he seems to relish the part more and more. On his last exit he appears to hex Cio-Cio-San from the back of the stage and it’s one of the few times that video director Matthew Woodward seems to let something go for nothing.

I want to say nice things about Scott Hendricks who sings Sharpless but at curtain up he finds it difficult to stay in his lane vocally and has more than a couple lines where his pitch is wayward. He also has a tendency to sing out of the side of his mouth which compromises his diction. Since his role is nearly all conversation, and one of them in particular is the cornerstone of the drama, it’s a drawback. He’s sympathetic in the second act but seems to have trouble getting out of his own way vocally.

Enjoyment levels are immediately elevated by Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente as Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton who is, to put it bluntly, wildly handsome. Like “Milan fashion week runway model” handsome. He’s got not a little charisma going on as well which doesn’t hurt..

This was his Royal Opera debut and he’s already got a plate full of lyric spinto roles on his CV. He’s not yet 40 and boasts a sizeable and burnished tenor sound with a firm, ringing, top. He bleats a little at the beginning of the evening (which could be nerves) and anything above the staff gets his undivided concentration if you understand what I mean. I wouldn’t call him polished per se but he sings with lyricism and freshness.

I also hesitate to mention that he’s got just the tiniest whiff of Corelli about him. Not so much the voice as the persona. There’s a moment towards the end of the love duet where he starts to fidget with his collar like he needs to let the steam escape from somewhere. Is it getting hot in here? Did I mention he’s wildly handsome? We’re friends on Facebook now. My mom’s going to love him.

Holding down the shiro meanwhile is Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and she’s so dead on right in everything she does whether it’s vocal or dramatic it’s easy to take her hard work for granted. One moment in particular stands out after the business with the spyglass trying to see the name of ship in the harbor.

At the realization Cio-Cio-San literally collides into her and they hug. The moment belongs to DeShong as hers is the face the audience sees. Her smile is euphoric and her sense of relief is palpable. For a moment I was so caught up I thought we were going to get a happy ending. The voice is simply beautiful and the duet is special in spite of the nonsense going on behind them with the set and Klingsor’s garden.

She also gives a surprisingly brutal parlando reading to the line, ‘”Piangero, tanto, tanto” after being questioned by Kate Pinkerton about Cio-Cio-San in the last scene and it takes you aback.

Then there’s our Butterfly and Ms. Jaho is one of those magical artists who convinces you that she’s playing with more voice than she actually has. She’s able to sing so skillfully that it allows her to fight above her weight class. It’s a slender instrument but one that opens on the top and is deployed with spinto-skill if not volume.

She’s full to the brim of nuance and she has the smile of youth in her voice as well. You can imagine that this is what is must of been like to see Toti Dal Monte or Licia Albanese in the role. The mastery seem so complete. She enters stage left just after she polishes off a glorious d-flat in here entrance aria and her game is on.

Ms. Jaho also impresses me as the first soprano who I’ve seen perform this role who manages a truly convincing fragility. Let’s face it the majority of Cio-Cio-San’s you encounter could also double as athletes in one sport or another. Her performance really gets mythic during the scene with Sharpless in Act II and her “Che tu madre” is an annihilation.

The directors have her “flapping her wings” (kimono sleeves) at key points (“Butterfly,” get it?) and she makes the gesture, that could appear hackneyed by a lesser performer seem not only natural but, deeply affecting.

She also works beautifully with young Harry Langton as Dolore who isn’t any. It’s a portrayal that is both old-fashioned and modern at the same time. A perfect balance of that old warhorse style of melodrama with an extra layer of modern psychology. Oh, and she cries real tears on cue. Twice.

If only the production itself weren’t so relentlessly ugly and void of ideas. A plain frame busily doing nothing for performances that deserve more. Woodward doesn’t focus on the set unless it’s moving. If you could go back through and edit all the long shots out of this whole show so it was just 3/4’s and close-ups it would be a relief.

The overnight vigil focuses solely on the orchestra and the only explanation is that either nothing was happening on stage or we were intentionally spared. The only other problem is that their are a number of disconcerting cuts where continuity is set ajar betraying this video is an amalgam of more than one performance.

Agostino Cavalca’s costumes are generally spot on with the exception of our heroine whom, once she doffs her cream wedding ensemble, spends the majority of the opera in a positively unflattering mustard yellow kimono with a taupe skirt. A bad color palette and, frankly, unforgivable.

Picture and sound are razor sharp on glorious on the Blu-ray I watched and there are two mini-documentaries. The first being an introduction to the work with interviews with cast and creative and the second a carefully unrehearsed session with Maestro Pappano and Ms. Jaho where they’re casually going over the fine points of the shore. She’s tré tré casual at the crook of the piano in haute-couture.

Ms. Jaho has barely visited the Met (or any other US house that I can tell) save a few emergency Butterflys last season and a single, one-night-stand, Violetta a decade ago. Her solo bow is one of the best parts of the performance (and don’t you love that?), She gets down on her knees and kisses the Covent Garden stage with her palm while she looks at the audience through a mountain of gratitude.

So a mixed bag with an important artist in a musically solid performance with a production that is tolerable (just) but doesn’t seem to have a viewpoint. Goodness knows a great diva can, and has, overcome far more.