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More Innovation, Less Kitsch, Please

10/17/2009 -  & October 21, 25, 30, November 5, 8, 12, 15, 19
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly

Xiu Wei Sun (Cio-Cio-San), Neil Shicoff (Pinkerton), Judith Schmid (Suzuki), Cheyne Davidson (Sharpless), Andreas Winkler (Goro), Pavel Daniluk (Uncle Bonze), Margaret Chalker (Kate Pinkerton), Kresimir Strazanac (Count Yamadori), Alejandro Larraga (Emperor’s envoy), Matthew Leigh (Registrar), Yoshiko Ida (Cio-Cio-San’s mother), Jung-Jun Kim (Cio-Cio-San’s aunt), Hartmut Kriszun (Uncle Yakuside), Francisca Montiel (Cio-Cio-San’s cousin), Maximilian von Bausznern/Juri Schaefer (Butterfly’s child)
Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Ernst Raffelsberger (Director), Orchestra of the Zurich Opera, Carlo Rizzi (conductor)
Reinhard von der Thannen (Set and costumes), Martin Gebhardt (Lighting), Grischa Asagaroff (Producer)

(© S. Schwiertz)

At the beginning of the 20th century Puccini carried out extensive research into Japanese music and culture before embarking on his Japanese opera. Puccini had visited London and saw David Belasco’s one-act play Madame Butterfly which in turn was based on an article of the same name in the American journal Magazine Century by John Luther Long, a lawyer, who described the facts of a case he had dealt with, involving the conflict between the American and the Japanese laws of matrimony and an American soldier and a girl in a tea house in Nagasaki. Puccini then called on a Japanese actress who was touring Italy to hear her speak Japanese. Puccini also called the wife of the Japanese Ambassador in Rome to his home in Torre del Lago to hear her sing Japanese folk songs and made his notes of the melodic lines.

Puccini himself described Butterfly as his most modern work and the one he listened to with most interest. In this new production, director Grischa Asagaroff transports us to modern Japan and sets the scene using a gleaming white multi-storey house with spiral staircases at the rear of the stage. The action however takes place on the veranda and the house is actually little used. Asagaroff elects for a fair degree of kitsch which does nothing to dispel the notion that the work can be overly sentimental. For instance, a coloured flunky acts as barman; four Butoh-tradition actors, semi-naked and chalky-white, act as scenery movers – they are supposed to represent figures from an old Japanese tradition to stress the conflict between Asiatic and European culture, the retention of tradition against the surge of modernity. They also act as bearers for Count Yamadori, who himself carries a toy fluffy ginger cat which, rather disconcertingly and during the Count’s aria, moves several times to lick its paw.

Dramatically, the final scene cannot really fail to be a tear-jerker and this production did not fail. The tragedy was highlighted by watching Cio-Cio San’s young son riding his bicycle in the garden unaware that his mother was at that moment ending her life with her father’s dagger.

The set by Reinhard von der Thannen (costumes and set) is clearly inspired by modern Japanese architecture, but the costumes are not entirely convincing. Pinkerton wears a beautifully tailored cream suit, Butterfly totters on platform shoes, Goro looks as though he has stepped out of The Mikado, and Suzuki’s embroidered black kimono steals the show. The overriding colour white is offset by flashes of red (to indicate the tragedy to come), red lanterns at the picturesque wedding ceremony, red flower petals raining down from above the stage to welcome Pinkerton on his return, red sashes on the kimonos.

Reinhard von der Thannen is Professor of Costume Design at the Academy of Applied Sciences in Hamburg and, on his initiative, students conceived three videos shown between the acts. The first depicted a swarm of birds turning into a surface of water, a metaphor for the arrival of the American marines, the second brought to mind abandonment and longing, and the third was a premonition of death, with bamboo the linking factor between all. The style of animation recalled traditional Japanese calligraphy. However, as hardly any opera-goer ever has the time (or interest?) to read the programme notes in advance, these allegories will have been lost on the majority of the audience: too clever by half.

Vocally one must wonder why so many opera houses feel compelled to cast an Asian soprano in the role of Butterfly; optically, of course, quite understandable, but few Asian sopranos have the bloom in the voice or the volume to impress. Xiu Wei Sun’s very first note, half off-stage, was horribly flat and her excessive vibrato, especially in Act 1, left an impression of vocal nervousness. As the evening progressed, however, Xiu Wei Sun gained in vocal confidence and “Un bel dí” was beautifully phrased and delivered.

Shicoff is 60 and the voice now shows its age. Although he hits the top notes with apparent ease and force, sustains the note, there is little lustre in the medium register and rather uneasy acting. Shicoff first sang the role well over 30 years ago, when Charles Osborne in the British Opera Diary wrote: “The American tenor Neil Shicoff was making his house debut as Pinkerton. As authentically American in appearance, and even posture, as his Butterfly was authentically Japanese, he made a dramatically convincing character of the emotionally immature lieutenant, and displayed a healthy and serviceable lyric tenor which he deployed with skill.” Not much has changed: not quite as healthy but still serviceable. Shicoff has his champions though, no less than Plácido Domingo in Opera News, (March 1996) wrote: “There are great tenors. Richard Leech, Richard Margison, Michael Sylvester - certainly Neil Shicoff - José Cura, Roberto Alagna, Marcello Giordani, Giuseppe Sabbatini, Vincenzo La Scola: these are really great tenors”.

Judith Schmid was a touching and finely sung Suzuki, Cheyne Davidson gave a convincing and well-sung performance as Sharpless as did Andreas Winkler as the marriage-broker Goro.

The chorus impressed in their delicate off-stage humming chorus to end Act II.

But top honours really must go to Carlo Rizzi, now off to conduct the work in Wales. He excelled in the pit, chose judicious tempi throughout, the orchestra was on very good form, and the work never drifted into sentimentality.

John Rhodes



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