Puccini: Madama Butterfly ***
Welsh National Opera, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 23rd March 2013
As Lieutenant Pinkerton peruses his new house, a traditional Japanese construction with sliding shoji paper doors, purchased on a 999 year lease – with an option to renew each month – he takes souvenir snaps on his camera. The sepia tones of Reinhart Zimmermann’s set, framed by cherry blossom, along with the drained colour of the costumes, give this production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly a nostalgic period feel evocative of turn-of-the-century photographs. Joachim Herz’s production for Welsh National Opera is even older than David Pountney’s for The Cunning Little Vixen which is also revived on this tour, but there’s ample evidence in both that productions needn’t be pensioned off when long in the tooth when they are still effective pieces of theatre.
Besides, Herz’s production has one unique feature – a performing edition you’re unlikely to see elsewhere. The 1904 premiere of Butterfly was one of the great fiascos of operatic history, the audience whistling and shouting protests about ‘old stuff’ meant singers could not always hear the orchestra. At one point, Rosina Storchio’s kimono billowed and the cry went up that Butterfly was pregnant, along with exclamations of “Ah, the little Toscanini!” in reference to the soprano’s well publicized affair with the famous Italian conductor. The Humming Chorus and Interlude didn’t work, people thinking it was the end of the Act, and Puccini was laughed at, leaning on his cane as he emerged from backstage to take curtain calls. Critics blamed the failure on Puccini’s lack of originality, complaining Butterfly was another Mimì and accusing him of deliberately creating another tearjerker.
Puccini railed against the reaction, but immediately withdrew the score and made extensive revisions. In fact, it wasn’t until the fourth revision of 1907 that a ‘standard version’ was settled upon and this is the version usually performed today. However, Herz’s production from 1978 is an amalgamation of the first three versions in an edition by himself and Julian Smith, which restores some unfamiliar music. This provides reason enough to catch this revival.
Act I is the most altered in this version. At the wedding, Pinkerton calls in food, while Butterfly’s mother and uncle get significant solo lines. Sharpless introduces the officials and Pinkerton has difficulty getting rid of the guests. In the love duet, there’s a central section where Cio-Cio-San expresses some doubts (“An American. Quite uncultured”) with a reprise of the US anthem. When Pinkerton returns, he gives Sharpless money to try and pay Cio-Cio-San off. It’s disconcerting to ears used to Puccini’s final version, but refreshing at the same time. The down side is the loss of Pinkerton’s aria “Addio, fiorito asil” in Act II, a bone thrown by Puccini later on in recognition that he’d have difficulty finding tenors wanting to do the role without some sort of aria.
Revival director Caroline Chaney mostly delivered people to the right places at the right times. I was left wondering why Butterfly’s opening lines weren’t delivered from off-stage (as are Tosca’s and Mimì’s), leaving soprano and entourage parked awkwardly on the set whilst singing about “one more step to go” when they’d clearly arrived at their destination. The ending also doesn’t quite sit right, with too many witnesses to the aftermath of Butterfly’s suicide. Puccini specifies in his libretto that Pinkerton and Sharpless rush in, but here we have the unedifying spectacle of Kate Pinkerton whisking the child away and Suzuki chasing down the path after her, directing focus away from the tragedy that’s just occurred. When the direction works, it works very well indeed, especially the iconic image of Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki and the child in silhouette behind the shoji for the duration of the Humming Chorus.
This was a very well cast revival. Gwyn Hughes Jones was in robust voice as Pinkerton. I’ve heard him in the role before and was also mightily impressed by his Cavaradossi for ENO last season. He has a big, open tone and can surf the orchestral wave with which Puccini cushions so many vocal lines. “Dovunque al mondo” was generously phrased and he was especially fine at the climactic moments of the love duet. His acting has often seemed a little self-conscious and he is at his best when reacting to others.
For a masterclass in subtle acting, Alan Opie offered an object lesson as the Amercian Consul, Sharpless. His doubts about Pinkerton’s wisdom in entering such a marriage contract were clear and his playing of the letter scene – difficult to judge correctly: play the ‘bluff old fella’ too much and it risks getting a comic reaction – was sensitively done. The Butterfly—Sharpless encounter in Act II is the crux of the whole opera; get it wrong and you lose the audience; get it right and they should be reaching for the tissues. It was also great to hear Opie in such good voice; refulgent tone and sensitively phrased. Puccini wasn’t often kind to his baritones and I regret that Sharpless doesn’t have a significant solo.
In the title role, Cheryl Barker took some time to get into her stride. Very few sopranos who have the lirico-spinto technique to tackle Butterfly can convincingly pass for a fifteen-year old, but I felt Barker was trying too hard to rein in her natural sound in Act I. Her top notes sounded very deliberately (gingerly) placed, although she did achieve a genuinely tender pp. In “Un bel dì vedremo”, it was noticeable that her lower register now lacks heft, sounding a little Josephine Barstow-like, but once above the stave, she started to produce some glorious sounds. Her Butterfly grew in stature as Act II went on; an excellent encounter with Sharpless, especially when she suddenly produces her son, and the dignity with which she imbued the solo leading to her suicide was compelling.
Claire Bradshaw was a sympathetic, fresh-voiced Suzuki, less waspish or interventionist as sometimes portrayed. She and Barker sang beautifully together in the Flower Duet (simply staged). Philip Lloyd Holtam was an excellent Goro, with clear diction and a more forceful tenor than we often hear in the role, making him less of a weasel and more of a threat. Alastair Moore’s smooth Yamadori was a highlight, as was Julian Close’s blustering Bonze. However, I’ve never seen a less sympathetic portrait of Kate Pinkerton than in this performance. It doesn’t help that Sian Meinir was costumed to look like a traffic warden in sepia tones, but her brusque manner and Amneris-like attack didn’t sit at all well with a character who is also caught in a hopeless situation.
Frédéric Chaslin conducted a blazing account of the score. He set bustling tempi to launch Act I, but was also prepared to languish in the richness of Puccini’s music where required. The orchestra was on particularly ravishing form in the love duet, while they released a torrent of anguish in Act II – great, red-blooded playing.
Finally, a grumble. Sadly, the Mayflower crowd was probably the most phlegm-riddled, sweetie-rustling audience I’ve had the displeasure of encountering for years (unlike the attentive audiences which greeted Lulu and Vixen in the same venue this week). I willed Cheryl Barker to make a Jon Vickers-type intervention in Act II. And what’s with this continued booing of ‘baddies’ at curtain calls? I heard Michael Volle’s Scarpia receive a few pantomime boos on Wednesday, but this was ridiculous. Gwyn Hughes Jones took it in good part here, but it must be disheartening. Do villains ever get booed in straight theatre? No. Seriously, stop this practice! It’s insulting to the artists concerned.
This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.