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A fine festival opener

Olavinlinna Castle
07/03/2009 -  & 7, 11, 13, 16, 20, 23 July
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Victoria Yastrebova*/Hiromi Omura (Cio-Cio-San), Adam Diegel*/Marian Talaba (Pinkerton), Jordanka Milkova*/Edyta Kulczak (Suzuki), Daniel Sutin*/Heikki Kilpeläinen (Sharpless), Tiina-Maija Koskela (Kate Pinkerton), Dan Karlström (Goro), Mikhail Kolelishvili (The Bonze), Andrey Bondarenko (Prince Yamadori), Joonas Asikainen (Yakusidé), Simo Breede (The Imperial Commissioner), Tapani Plathan (The Official Registrar), Kanade Koizumi (Mother), Bianca Hösli (Aunt), Annami Hylkilä (Cousin)
Savonlinna Opera Festival Choir, Matti Hyökki (Chorus Master), Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra, Stefan Soltesz (Conductor)
Henry Akina (Director), Dean Shibuya (Stage Designer), Anne Namba (Costume Designer), Ilkka Paloniemi (Lighting Designer)

The 2009 Savonlinna Festival has got off to a fine start with a new production of Madama Butterfly. The Asian-American production team of Henry Akina (director), Dean Shibuya (set designer) and Anne Namba (costumes) have synthesized various ideas ranging from well-observed socio-cultural detail to touches of Japanese theatrical fantasy and come up with an intriguing whole.

The festival’s performance space in the courtyard of Olavinlinna Fortress has 2000 seats facing a very broad but shallow stage backed by a stark stone wall. The locus is severely medieval (it was built in 1485 after all) and one expects correspondingly cavernous acoustics, but happily the sound is fine - the orchestra has a warm sound and voices come across well. The courtyard is roofed but if the temperature drops it can feel chilly inside - blankets are provided. Surtiltes are in Finnish and English. There is no proscenium or backstage, but there are several possible entry points for performers the clever use of which can add to the theatrical experience. There is lots of space for processional moments, such as the entry of Cio-Cio-San and her wedding party.

Anne Namba’s costumes are basically Japanese circa 1900 and, as illustrations of the era show, western influences were being combined with traditional garments. Thus Goro wears spats and Cio-Cio-San a western-style blouse with her Japanese robe. Extremely effective use is made of black-robed “invisible” stage hands who, for example, slowly decorate the stage with glowing lanterns during the Act I love duet. Cio-Cio-San’s disapproving uncle, the Bonze, appears as an avenging fantasy figure from the past, an Erda-like creature. Ilkka Paloniemi’s skillful lighting adds to the atmosphere throughout.

The opera is presented with just one intermission, thus no break between Acts II and III. For the lengthy introduction to the third act Henry Akina has created a brilliantly effective scene: Cio-Cio-San’s dream. Goro appears, once again offering the hand of Prince Yamadori (Andrey Bondarenko - a product of the Mariinsky training program) while the Bonze glowers from the opposite side of the stage. A smiling Pinkerton suddenly appears, hugs his little son and the reunited family poses for a photograph. The sweet dream suddenly melts away, rendering the ensuing final act even more poignant.

Viktoria Yastrebova (yet another graduate of the Mariinsky’s Young Singers’ Academy) has the voice, looks and dramatic nuance of the ideal Cioi-Cio-San. So much of the role is pleasantly, even innocently, lyrical, but when it requires a full spinto sound, she has it. Adam Diegel, a young American singer, is almost too charming for the role of Pinkerton. Instead of a callous manipulator, he comes across as a heedless hormonal kid. Remorse seems to suddenly crash over him in Addio fiorito asile. He is definitely a singer to watch out for.

Jordanka Milova, a Bulgarian mezzo, is a strong Suzuki and US baritone Daniel Sutin has a real success in the role of Sharpless. Among the comprimario roles, Mikhail Kolelishvili (another Mariinsky alumnus) is outstanding as the Bonze.

Savonlinna’s fine orchestra (comprised mostly of members of Finland’s leading orchestras) and superb chorus perform wonderfully under the assured hand of Stefan Soltesz.

Butterfly is a work that automatically gets a huge audience, not always deservedly. This production (which will be returning to Savonlinna in 2010) fully earns a festival quality rating.

Michael Johnson



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