Nods to early 20th century Japan look instead like twee japonisme. (There’s a fine line between accuracy and stereotype). Seen in light of Opera Australia‘s more modern-day production, which I could not help recalling, this production seems in all ways a little stiff. Taking place as it does in this austere space, with the backwall made up of a huge shoji screen and a bare floor, it is up to Kristine Opolais to light up the evening.
This she does. She is of course the best thing in it, and doubtless some would go so far as to say that more, she is the best Butterfly in the world right now. She makes it all sound rather easy, her spinto voice pushes through the band (ably conducted by Nicola Luisotti) with clarity and beauty and she makes the words live. At the start of the opera, the “ladies chorus” is heard as they ascend the hill above Nagasaki. Here Opolais sounded a little forced, and I feared the worst, but happily, no more forcing. Her voice continues only to blossom* (pun intended?). Allied to her considerable acting skills and you have a fine “singing actress” indeed.
It is the acting and the voice which is a pleasure here. I agree 100% with this statement:
This was a psychologically rich treatment, which showed real despair and anguish. I must admit to being more moved by the Opera Australia offering mainly because it lunged into melodrama and approaches the mawkish. In Opolais hands, this evening unsettles (and for some, sounds like it has harrowed.) Not for me: I was tired and standing, and some notes rang false.
Mention at Artsdesk is made of Butterfly’s post-suicide flailing. This is perhaps directors insisting on high reality in their storybook setting, and as such it seems at odds with it. Minghella aestheticized that same death scene very effectively, and Opera Australia had it take place behind closed doors, if I recall right. Here is it in front of us, and it is an ugly thing (as it really would be of course,) but moreso for Butterfly’s protracted stumbling. This is a Butterfly physically un-anaesthetised, but emotionally numb, before being destroyed. Minghella’s is an elegiac ending. Here Leiser and Caurier’s could be reworked and toned down.
Indeed, some elements of the production (apart from the Ikea feel) were not to my taste. The background to the wedding sequence is of painted boards, an idealisation of Japanese pastoral. When the Bonze arrives, the backdrop actually falls down, for the cast to trample home over. This struck me as a little crude, almost slapstick in the moment it fell. Slapstick too, almost literally, for Suzuki vs Goro, which had some pretty poor “stage slaps” from Bosi. So too on Butterfly’s death, the blossoms from the handsomely crafted Magnolia tree fall off – only to clonk and clump to the floor. (I never knew petals could make so much noise.)
Brian Jagde was a slightly one-dimensional Pinkerton, but with a strident tone he filled the house. A bit more warmth and verve from him would have been satisfying, but a friend did joke with me that he was American, a serviceman, and hence was supposed to be brash. There were a few “sobs” – not from the audience – when he sung, nods to the style he was supposed to be singing but I wasn’t wholly affected by his sung ardour. The “Viene la sera” duet was good but I would have liked a bit more rapture from both.
As Goro, Carlo Bosi was splendid: the voice rings true, even as an odious character. Enkelejda Shkosa‘s Suzuki was beautifully sung, and her “Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio” Flower Duet with Opolais lovingly blended – save a bit of hesitation on the final duo phrasing.
The inclusion of a child in this piece is always affecting. I very much enjoyed Minghella’s bunraku in his version, but a real child as here gives weight of reality to proceedings. Well done to the young man for a) braving Opolais squillo face on, and b) lying still for about 5 minutes, whilst the curtain came down during the “intermezzo”.
Credit must go to the Royal Opera House’s backstage team for fulfilling the directors’ vision. Cloth from Nagasaki, fans by of all places, Asahi Beer, kimonos from Salon des Hagi@London (where ever that may be): costumes and makeup are handsome indeed. Lavish orientalism, but the expense? I dread to think.
In summary, go for Opolais, and try to ignore the production: it’s worth it!
* I would love to tell you how well she sung “Un bel dì vedremo” but alas I cannot, as I was distracted by the guy standing next to me who was loudly picking his nose and eating it and licking his fingers for that whole aria. He then proceeded to eat his fingernails. Not what I really want to experience during that hushed moment of pathos.