Puccini – Madama Butterfly

ONP – Bastille, Monday January 30 2006

Conductor: Marco Balderi. Production and sets: Robert Wilson. Cio-Cio San: Hui He. Suzuki: Ekaterina Gubanova. F. B. Pinkerton: Marco Berti. Sharpless: Dwayne Croft. Goro: Burkhard Ulrich. Il Commissario Imperiale: Yuri Kissin. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris.
[Photo: Shafahi]
It might be nice to write with the cast-iron self-assurance of professional critics, but as an amateur, I feel obliged to own up to doubts. When my own views on the night are at odds with the reviews I’ve read, I feel bound to wonder if my ears - or fatigue, or just mood - are at fault. The critics have been kind to the lead singers in this revival of Bob Wilson’s 1993 Butterfly, and as they were, for once, undeniably audible, I fear I may sound ungrateful…

But first, the production. No cherry trees, no painted fans, no embroidered silks… In fact, no vertical sets at all. The stage is covered with a Zen garden of raked sand. In act one, a wooden catwalk crosses from the right to meet a square of wooden floorboards on the left representing the house. A pebble path meanders from the rear to the front, and careful lighting of the plain backdrop suggests the view of the sea. The costumes are strictly-cut and monochrome: black, white, cream or bronze, actions (e.g. whisky drinking) are mimed, the gestures are hieratic and the only prop is one minimalist chair.

In 1993 this was only the second Wilson production I’d seen and it seemed refreshingly sober and free from what the French jokingly call “japoniaiseries” – “niaiseries” means silliness. Many, many Wilson productions later, the “crowd scenes” in the first act seem almost as falsely picturesque, in their designer-zen, Issey Miyake, sushi-eating way, as anything Zeffirelli might dream up for the Met. But from act two on, things become very sober indeed: sombre even. The house floorboards have moved slightly to the right, the catwalk now runs from left to right and end with the chair looking out to sea and for obvious reasons the lighting is often darker. The pebbles meander still.

In terms of concept, apart from the obvious major one of refusing (sous reserve de my point about the near zen-picturesqueness of act one) the picturesque and concentrating on the tragedy, there’s little to recount. The child wanders about, arms outstretched, in such a way that we can’t tell if he’s dreaming of flying or hinting at crucifixion, and he does it in that curiously absent, cautious, deliberate way children pretend to play on stage. Cio-Cio San dies on her back, arms outstretched, as if pinned to the floor, a hint back to the act one libretto.

But the trouble with Wilson productions really is that it takes a great deal of charisma and presence to project a character through the static stylisation, and our main protagonists didn’t have them. The result, in this case, is what looks very like our old opera-house chum, the one-arm-raised, “stand and deliver” school of non-acting.

To me, the best singer of the evening was Dwayne Croft as Sharpless. Not quite the loudest, he was still audible and sang musically and with elegance. Marco Berti, who seemed very promising back in Macbeth – I think when Deborah Voigt sang a marvellous Lady – has a very loud voice indeed and ringing high notes, but he belts it out like a bull in a china shop and the word that came to my mind (see, perhaps I was in a bad mood) was “crass”.

I spent much of the rest of the time trying to pin down (no pun intended) Hui He. Once again, I thought, a singer had been hired on the strength of a sound upper medium; and as a result, fair enough, she died well, the final scene relying largely on that range. Her top notes were definitely there as well, but never thrilled me. Otherwise, it seemed to me her rapid vibrato made the recitative passages shaky in both rhythm and intonation. My odd conclusion, considering that Hui He was born in the 70s, was that her voice sounded like that of a soprano past her prime.

The orchestra, under Marco Balderi, brought out what seems to me the worst in Puccini, loud and lush and swooning when, with this production on stage, it might have been more appropriate to play up the discreeter, gloomier, Debussyian potential.

But perhaps it was just me. The young man in streetwear to the right, a total newcomer to opera with a free ticket from a colleague who couldn’t come, was “transported”. “Aucune émotion” (zilch emotion) was the verdict of my neighbour on the left.

Maestro Wenarto sings Madama Butterfly.


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