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Tuesday 29 October 2013

Madama Butterfly at ENO


Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly is very popular on both sides of the pond (the Met uses it too), and it's easy to see why. It's an opera production that feels modern in its bright, bold design, balancing spareness and lushness with simple elegance, whilst not messing with the opera's central story at all, or questioning Puccini's taste in tackling this subject matter (or indeed the audience's enjoyment of it). What it doesn't do is try to negotiate the very uncomfortable cultural problems at the work's heart, nor make sense of the work's bizarre psychology and dramatic foundations. Instead it delivers everything that a traditionalist might ask of the experience of a Madama Butterfly.

First then, the design. Michael Levine's set is in essence rather sparse - the black raked floor, slightly mirrored ceiling, and sliding screens offer a neutral backdrop for the extremely colourful items of set dressing, lighting and costumes that fill it. It's obvious that all these elements have been worked on very closely together by the team - the lighting particularly by Peter Mumford makes sophisticated use of the set to create some often extraordinary effects. Hang Feng's costumes can be more problematic, but also raise more questions - some look quite realistic/historical, with their artful prints and elegant cuts. Butterfly's followers on the other hand wear the gaudiest colours and designs imaginable, and with their card board cut out wigs, the inspiration can only have come from Japanese anime cartoons, which had reached a fever pitch in Western popularity when the production premièred. Although the result of the anime influence is jarring and ugly, this cartoonish design matches the cartoony music that Puccini composes in the first scene for the Japanese characters - so obviously trying to capture some surface exoticisms, but wholly failing to grasp the aesthetic or feel of the alien culture. Somehow it works. Pinkerton's Japanese looking costume in the opening scene is a nice touch, especially when contrasted with Sharpless' stolidly European attire - Pinkerton is really getting into playing with this culture, "trying it on", without ever trying to properly integrate trying to understand it. The metaphor is clear.

paper wigs and anime costumes on kneeling followers,
visible lighting (see below)

click on the images for a closer look at what I mean.

The lighting can get very sugary indeed, the stage drowned in a welter of pinks and lilacs, as cherry blossoms, lanterns and paper cranes litter the stage. Whether deliberately or not, the divide between genuine beauty and gaudy kitsch is continually probed, broken and remade in this production, and though the middle act tends strongly towards the latter, I did wonder whether this was a comment on the music and whether we were being subtly played with by Minghella here. There are clues - the lighting from the side of the stage is clearly visible throughout and constantly on the move, so our attention is drawn to it: we always see the means of construction of this luxuriant fantasy land, which in turn invites us to do the same with the score and opera as a whole. Those not inclined to this sort of probing need not pursue this course of reflection, and again, it's difficult to tell whether it's intentional, but I appreciated the fact that it made me think this way - not every directorial choice must be conscious for it to be enjoyed!

Also problematic, but yet again revealing, is the use of traditional Japanese puppets. As well as their use for some minor characters, Butterfly's son is presented to us as a very mobile, semi realistic Bunraku puppet, dressed as an American sailor and waving an American flag. When wrenched from his original cultural/artistic context, Cio Cio San's puppet offspring seems freakish and alien, especially when placed in such close proximity to living, breathing people: the little Homunculus occupies an uncanny valley, where cuteness is mingled with an innate feeling of disgust and revulsion at the human simulacrum. The unnerving effect of this is a psychological rather than a cultural one, but the message becomes confused on the way - is this mild discomfort we feel intentional or not? Exactly how we are meant to relate to this purported piece of Japanese culture is ambiguous and troubling.

Overall, I often wished that the design had been simpler and bolder - the most visually effective and beautiful moments occur when the characters are highlighted onstage against a dark background, and the strong colours aren't washed in a sea of saccharine pastels. The dance scene which opens the production (photos of which are very often used to advertise it) is almost the best part of the show for this reason - the four red ribbons that emanate from the dancer's torso are predictably (but very effectively) mirrored at the end, during Cio Cio San's final scene - in each case the intense focus on the artist creates a spellbinding effect of concentration and attention, something which certainly does seem to be a feature of the genuine Japanese culture that I have encountered.

So it's often beautiful, and as viewers we aren't made to feel guilty about it. Sighs of relief. The story is told well by Minghella, and revival director Sarah Tipple has both the soprano who premièred the production and a fine Suzuki to build her production around. Not all the singers can be coaxed into good acting, but Tipple makes sure that the important emotional scenes hit home.

But what about what this staging ignores? Pinkerton is painted in a bad light, as is surely the intention of the libretto - he's a Western voyeur, and worse than that a flagrant exploiter. But wait, aren't we also Western voyeurs? And, we are dealing with Geishas here, the marriage contracts are being handed out by the Japanese; no one ought to be under any false pretences about what is going on here. The opera revolves around sex tourism - this was known then, and it's known now. (Whether you want to add paedophilia into the mix or not is up to you). Given that everyone else in Cio-Cio San's society seems to understand this situation, and Cio Cio San doesn't appear to be in a state of madness, isn't there an interesting psychology to be explored here? The story very obviously centres around the conflict between eternal devotional love (Cio Cio San) and fleeting sexual desire (Pinkerton), but wouldn't it be interesting to probe why this conflict has arisen? Is Pinkerton really the party that's in the wrong? I think he is partly, as he's a pure hedonist and should surely realise that Cio Cio San thinks this is something that it isn't, and he certainly also enjoys the power he has over her to a sinister degree. But on the other hand maybe he thinks that she's just acting the part well, and he's just doing what all his friends are no doubt doing too. This is a widespread cultural phenomenon we're dealing with here, not a one off: she is being sold to him, legally, as a temporary wife. No one else misunderstands this but Cio Cio. Why? Her mania of devotion is fascinating, and it's frustrating that so many productions just take this at face value, while so few seem to be interested in the roots of this phenomenon. How does Cio Cio use her experience to serve herself? She constructs a huge edifice of victimhood around which to centre her life; whether she does this consciously or not is a further matter for fruitful exploration. When people question her she either ignores them or threatens them with death. She is a fantasist with an extremely unhealthy attachment to her dreams who uses her fanatical devotion as a crutch against her family, and fall from society (a double fall - it happens both pre and during the opera). Her story is heart rending, but it is also self inflicted. This is key. If we don't own up to this, it seems to me that the desecration of her innocence and suicide are entirely without logic or meaning.

To come to Puccini's music - regular readers will know the difficulties I have with it, but don't worry, I'm not going to bash it again. I actually found occasion to accept and enjoy what I could this time. The strange conceit of opening the opera with a fugal idea, that most Western of formal devices, presumably is an attempt to depict the extraordinary formal control that Japanese culture exhibits, though the fugue soon breaks down into familiar Puccinian strains. A metaphor for the entire work perhaps - and though it should be extremely obvious from the music, it bears saying again - this is not a portrait of Japan; as always with imitation, it tells us more about the imitator than the imitated. This music tells us about a Westerner of the fin-de-siecle's view of the East. To go to the other end of the work, there was a moment which I thought showed surprising restraint (in a weird sense of the word) from Puccini. Following Butterfly's death, the spectacular crudity of the music that closes the opera is a brilliant stroke from Puccini - for once there's no syrupy sentimentality or mock tragedy and the spare, unemotional, unimpressive, entirely ungratifying, and above all, hideous uglyness of the blaring orchestra, decries the squalid meaninglessness of Butterfly's sacrifice. There is far more subtlety to be drawn out of this piece than traditional productions let on.

Mary Plazas makes an excellent Madama Butterfly. Her diminutive stature, and convincingly girlish acting make her believably youthful. It shows that she was the production's original Butterfly - her acting is detailed and nuanced. Vocally she is fine too. In the first scene, when Butterfly needs to sound most youthful, the vibrato felt a bit wide, and there is weakness in the low register, but actually overall this performance is a vocal success, and she gets better as the evening progresses. The problem of balancing in the voice the psychological and physical fragility of Butterfly, against the sheer vocal heft required to ride Puccini's orchestration is probably the role's biggest challenge, and this is Plazas' trump card.

Timothy Richards is often a little underpowered as Pinkerton, but he's very solid vocally and he doesn't at all make an unattractive sound. He is however very blank acting wise in the present company and doesn't really cut a rounded character on stage. One thing in particular jarred, though it was no fault of his own. With Puccini's repeated references to the fact that Pinkerton is not just Western, but American (by the fifth direct quotation of The Star Spangled Banner we rather get the point), and the fact that the ENO singers are singing in English, it's really jarring to hear that sort of RPish generic singers' English coming from both Pinkerton and Sharpless. Once again, on one of those rare occasions where the ENO's language policy could be used to a production's advantage, it is not capitalised on. Whose job is it to notice these things? (As an aside: it also raises the interesting question of what language the characters in the opera are "really" speaking - presumably the answer is English.)

Pamela Helen Stephen is a consummate actor-musician, making the absolute most of the famously thankless role of Suzuki. I recently asked on twitter whether mezzos actually enjoyed playing this part, and it seems that many do. In the 90's Helen Stephen was a pristine Mozartian (see her wonderful Cherubino on youtube [how could the Countess resist?]), and if the voice has lost its former purity, it maintains its attractive basic timbre and is now capable of a much wider palette of colours and can tackle more dramatic writing without strain. If all operatic acting were as committed and simple as this, the artform would be unstoppable.

George von Bergen's Sharpless is a bit of a caricature dramatically, all awkward moustache twitches and concerned glances into the middle distance. Vocally he is powerful and accurate, but the voice can become uncomfortably hard when put under pressure. Gianluca Marciano doesn't do anything particularly out of the ordinary in the pit, but he doesn't do anything wrong either: balance is good, and the stage and pit are well synched. The ENO orchestra sound well focussed and big boned.

Certain productions and certain operas seem to find "fetish" words attached to them, usually derived from an early review, then endlessly repeated in the press and marketing for the production, and eventually leaking into all subsequent reviews. This production's fetish word is "sumptuous". It occasionally is, but for me the "sumpture" becomes plain "sump" often enough that I wouldn't say that it is the production's main attraction. The biggest boon of this revival is the excellent singing and acting of the two females at the centre of this story.

Photos (c) ENO/Clive Barda/Thomas Bowles

1 comment:

  1. @SophieR13 just commented insightfully on twitter in reaction to this review. (Of Cio-Cio) "wrongful cultural appropriation on her side... she thinks he's in it for a Western, legally binding marriage, but he's gone for the 'local', imperialist paper marriage."