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Refreshing Interpretation of a Masterpiece

The Royal Danish Opera House
12/03/2010 -  & December 6, 9, 20*, 22, 27, 30, 2010, January 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 19, 28, 31, February 3, 8, 13, March 3 (Aalborg), 7 (Herning), 9 (Aarhus), 12, (Randers), 14 (Vejle), 16 (Esbjerg), 19 (Holstebro), April 2, 9, 16, 2011
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Maria Luigia Borsi*/Anne Margrethe Dahl/Natalia Kreslina (Cio-Cio San (Butterfly)), Antonello Palombi*/Misha Didyk (B.F. Pinkerton), David Kempster*/Audun Iversen/Guido Paevatalu/Clemens Unterreiner (Sharpless), Elisabeth Jansson*/Katarina Giotas/Johanne Bock (Suzuki), Guido Paevatalu*/Hans Lawaetz (Prince Yamadori), Sten Byriel*/Kjeld Christoffersen (Bonze), Bengt-Ola Morgny (Goro), Elisabeth Halling (Kate Pinkerton), Bo Glies Nanford/Rudi Sisseck* (Yakusidé), Kjeld Christoffersen*/ Hans Lawaetz (Imperial Commissioner), Ejvind Callesen/Imre György* (Registrar), Catarina Roos/Margit Christensen* (Cio-Cio San’s mother), Susse Lillesoe/Birgitte Ewerlöf* (Aunt), Charlotte Meldgaard*/Louise Bothmann (Cousin)

The Royal Danish Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Giordano Bellincampi (conductor), Phillip White (chorus master)
Lars Kaalund (director), Christian Friedländer (set designer), Pernille Egeskov (costume designer), Ulrik Gad (lighting designer)

M.L. Borsi & E. Jansson (© Miklos Szabo/RDO)

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is the most scheduled production in the 2010-11 repertoire of the Royal Danish Opera, with three leading singers in the role of Butterfly, two as Pinkerton, four as Sharpless, and three as Suzuki. In March, the production will play in major cities in Jutland, Denmark’s mainland peninsula, finishing its run in April on the main stage. Giordano Bellincampi, General and Artistic Director of the Danish National Opera in Aarhus and well known in Denmark and abroad for his interpretations of Italian opera, will conduct the Royal Danish Orchestra in every performance, and audiences have thereby something to look forward to, regardless of which cast they see.

Madama Butterfly is of course a masterpiece by a master composer, who edited and reedited every detail of the music and libretto. This production shows how great an artwork it is by letting the music speak without the distractions of an overload of stage detail. And because of the acting prowess of Maria Luigia Borsi, well supported by the other roles, we experienced the essence of Butterfly and her short tragic life.

Waiting for the performance to begin, we contemplated a full-stage, abstract print of a red-breasted bird flapping its wings with Japanese cherry blossoms, bamboo stalks, small round eggs, and an ominous fish skeleton in the collage. Bellincampi reached out to the orchestra with his graceful expressive hands and arms and started the short but urgent overture. Throughout the performance, he and the orchestra delivered the passionate intense waves of music and delicate instrumental details that bared the souls of Puccini’s characters and that are the first and foremost reason to experience the production.

As the print curtain rose, a Japanese vista came to view: multiple 8-ft-high cloth prints of Katsushika Hokusai’s "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" framed the stage in a half-circle. Up-stage, a more distanced background sketch showed volcanic islands rising from the sea. An abstract mountain in center stage, composed of brown stairs and platforms led up to a hexagonal pavilion, the hilltop house with paper walls bought by Pinkerton for himself and his bride-to-be. In Act II, the mountain retracted, and the pavilion became center stage. The mood of each scene was conveyed visually in a minimalistic magical way, particularly in the flower petal scene. At the end, the dramatic Hokusai waves were a graphic reinforcement of the orchestra’s repetition of Butterfly’s vow to choose death over life as a geisha without Pinkerton.

Lars Kaalund (director), Christian Friedländer (set designer), and Ulrik Gad (lighting designer) have provided a staging that allows the audience to focus on the protagonists without eliminating the historical color that was so important to Puccini. Throughout, the stage set and lighting reinforced the unfolding events and even played a part in the dramatic ending, which must be seen rather than described here.

The role of Pinkerton has always been difficult to cast and always will be. Antonello Palombi (B.F. Pinkerton) portrayed this speculating, crass man, singing with a steely and forceful voice, occasionally a bit hoarse, perhaps because of an indisposition, as revealed by a few judiciously placed coughs that did not disturb. Dressed in white as a kind of Bohemian artist - and with a jet-black Italian beard and flowing hair - the portly tenor was not the stereotype of a womanizing American naval lieutenant. The image discrepancy would have not mattered, however, had Palombi convinced us through vocal lyricism or acting that his Pinkerton was capable of inspiring the love of a teenager. A dramatic tenor, Palombi may be the right man for roles in other operas (provided he is well), but this evening in December, he did not render a credible, conflicted Pinkerton who could garner our sympathy in his final outbreak of grief.

The absolute star of the evening was Maria Luigia Borsi (Cio-Cio San), who was spirited and sensitive as the young geisha in love with a foreigner. Her acting was a pleasure to watch as Butterfly progressed from naïve girl to hopeful lover, abandoned mother, and finally proud Japanese willing to act on the consequences of her choice. Borsi’s facial expressions and body language were convincing, and her lyric soprano expressed the large range of feelings that Puccini demands of his heroine. I send a note of thanks to the theatre’s makeup and wig artists, who so skillfully transformed Italian Borsi into Japanese teenager. As a footnote, I can say that audiences will also be pleased with Anne Margrethe Dahl as Butterfly, whom I saw in the role shortly after Christmas.

David Kempster was convincing in his role as Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, handsome, trimmed, and styled impeccably in a white suit with boutonniere. Although he was suffering from a throat cold, as announced before the second act, he agreed to keep singing and delivered a fine performance without appreciable vocal lapses. Elisabeth Jansson (Suzuki) as mezzo was a nice vocal contrast to Borsi, especially in the duet in Act II. She was able to deliver in her bottom register and was a capable actress.

Pernille Egeskov (costume designer) dazzled us with her costumes for the Japanese leads, chorus, and extras. Borsi appeared as a dream in Act I, singing and climbing the back of the stage mountain on her wedding day and emerging from nothing in delicate grandeur. The lavishness continued as her bridesmaids celebrated her by waving huge silk flags. In Act II, Borsi’s silk robes very appropriately reflected her allegiance to her husband and his country. And then there were the interesting costumes for Bengt-Ola Morgny (Goro: spritely and Chaplinesque), Guido Paevatalu (Prince Yamadori: pilot dressed to the notch), and Steen Byriel (Bonze: Japanese spartan), all of whom sang their parts very competently.

I have happily rediscovered Puccini’s wonderful Madama Butterfly because of the Royal Danish Opera production. The cast will vary through the season, so you might find it interesting to see it more than once. The well-playing orchestra and animated conductor, Puccini’s music and strictly edited libretto and details, the creative stage set, lovely costumes, and fine singers: What more can be desired? As overheard on the way out, in English: “That was the best Madama Butterfly I have ever seen!” and “Fantastic ending.”

Kathleen Gail Jensen



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