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Wednesday 22 June 2011

Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House

Madama Butterfly General

OK. Madama Butterfly. We'll get into the review in a second but oh dear. Oh dear. Where to start? The music is just poor. Not as poor as Tosca, and certainly not as bad as Turandot, which for me is the worst opera in the standard repertoire. But poor it is - breathtakingly crude, vulgar, simplistic (though not simple) treating a plot of undeniable dramatic potential in an amazingly crass and emotionally manipulative way. The basic musical fabric is dull more than anything, but I won't deny that the big moments, as in all of Puccini's operas, are astonishing creations. Un Bel Di Vedremo, Vissi d'arte, Nessun Dorma and virtually every one of his other famous arias are exquisite, achingly beautiful creations of nostalgic erotic kitsch which make incredible vehicles for amazing singers. But if he's capable of this level of quality and detail, then why is the norm of his work so uninteresting, banal and boring?

Puccini's depiction of Japan is embarrassing of course, that much should be clear to everyone (though the embarrassing orientalism is worse in Turandot, so maybe I shouldn't complain too much. Though maybe Butterfly is worse after all because the story is contemporary and not mythical). But basically this opera deals with sex tourism, with the underage Cio-Cio-San working as a dancer and geisha (how is she still so innocent and trusting of men?) before being bought by some rich, smooth talking, uncaring American sex tourist (of course he's a lieutenant in the navy... I bet they all say that) and then abandoned as soon as he leaves the port. The set up in the libretto is almost laughably poised towards a "tragic" ending (not tragic in the classical sense, tragic in the verismic sense) with Cio-Cio-San's endless talk of love and rapture and staying true, and Pinkerton's endless talk of money, betrayal, lust etc. etc. Not subtle. It's only in the second act when we realise she's had a nipper that Puccini starts pulling at the heart strings, and then in act three he's playing you like a harp. Of course such a painful human story is going to elicit tears - but isn't it repulsive to sentimentalise it to this extent?

I find it extremely difficult to understand how people can seriously consider Puccini's art next to Mozart's, Verdi's and Wagner's, let alone Janacek and Berg and even Strauss, his near contemporaries. Apart from the arias, in every parameter, his operas are embarrassing compared to these composers.

People have assured me that I will grow into liking Puccini as I get older, but presumably that entails that at some point in my 50s or 60s, as well as my looks fading, my jawline disappearing, my gut expanding and control over my bladder becoming ever more perilous, I will also take leave of my critical faculties and will begin to mistake tawdry, maudlin lyric melodrama, for the "real thing". I shudder at the thought, but everyone assures me it is coming, so like ear hair, back hair and liver spots, maybe I should just accept it and start worrying about other things (full disclosure: I'm not going to accept it).

This production is very simple, and is basically completely traditional. All the action goes on in one room, with a screen at the back constantly sliding up and down (noisily) to reveal the garden, the harbour or the Bonze. Other than that it's rather static and not exactly a feast for the eye and I did get a bit bored. The lighting is appalling, with big blocks of bright colour scattering across the stage almost at random. It's often too difficult to make out what the actors are doing in the gloom, and evocations of evening and night are generally clumsily segued into. I don't like the way that Pinkerton barely registers in the third act in this production, and although Cio-Cio-San is rightfully the centre of the action, we need to remember that Pinkerton has also aged 3 years and the regret he feels is due to his maturing in that time (at least nominally, he no longer seems to be a playboy). In this production he just starts sobbing and then runs off. The right dramatic/emotional triggers are all in place to make this a sob fest, but somehow it doesn't quite work, probably because act I doesn't work to make Cio-Cio likeable enough.

Patricia Racette can look lovely on stage, but Kristine Opolais, who has replaced her, is silly pretty. The looks don't quite transfer across the theatre though, but she'll look amazing on film no doubt. Even more striking perhaps is the American tenor, James Valenti who could be a model (he's so pretty! Men aren't even my bag and I still would! I strongly suspect that this was a big part of why he was cast) and this time the looks carry. He is absolutely ideal for douchebag B.F. Pinkerton - he acts it with just the right sort of nonchalance and sneering casualness. I think it'll probably look amazing on screen. But is he overparted? Again it'll be fine when recorded up close, but it wasn't always easy to hear him. This was a general though - would be good to hear from people how he does on opening night.

The singing is pretty good actually. Neither of the leads did much for me vocally, but it's all in place, in tune, without wobble, and with a few exceptions, easily audible. Not that exciting though it has to be said. Robin Leggate is the most powerful vocally, but in this case there's quite a bit of wobble in the tone, though it doesn't jar in this old serious man role, like it usually does. Suzuki is not a grateful mezzo part (not a single aria!) but Helene Schneiderman makes the most of it. Everyone seems to be a decent actor, which bodes well for the filming.

The filming is for an upcoming 3D cinema presentation of this show (ooh 3D, I've never seen opera in 3D before), and apparently the cameras will be there to film it again twice in the run (on the 8th and 15th July. Don't quote me). Whether it'll be as intrusive as it was here I don't know (at least four cameras in front of the stage at all times including a MASSIVE crane which requires 20 or so stalls seats to be removed).

UPDATE: You can quote me after all - the 8th and 15th July are the correct dates, and additionally, on those two dates, the maximum ticket price will be £37.50.

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