In most productions, Madame Butterfly is unabashedly atmospheric in its romanticism. “Orientalism” carries us back to composer Giacomo Puccini’s time when the West imagined a fanciful Japan with geishas in pastel colors, a watery moon over stirring waters, a pinkish snow of cherry blossoms, and the like. Those of us who love this opera succumb willingly and weepingly.
Not here. Japanese American designer Jun Kaneko shocks us awake with his set and costume design. The moment we walk in we are greeted by the cavernous proscenium of the Kennedy Center Opera House filled with repeated invisible clotheslines of Japanese “happi coats” designed with bold dots, stripes, and blocks of primary colors. The stage is defined by a long curving ramp across the back and a single off-center circular raised platform that together reminded me of a circus ring or a contemporary architectural statement.
Throughout the performance, the huge cyc displays of indigo and peach skies are interrupted by giant screens dropping into place with projections of horizontal lines sometimes black and white, sometimes primary colors. In one scene a curtain of giant linguini stripes of color lower into place. The set and costumes seem to move, even dance, throughout the show.
The geisha parade of chorus near the start of the show is similarly clothed and moving. The women in bold kimonos carry translucent flat discs for parasols whose circularity disappears or simply become another element of contemporary “backdrop” design. To me the almost op art effect was both jarring and fresh.
Director Leslie Swackhamer has given the opera a bold modern stamp, and together with Kaneko’s designs they make a powerful statement.
The combined effect aroused in me an almost Brechtian feeling “alienation,” making the familiar strange. Some of the new resonances carried overtly both political and social criticism. The setting of the town of Nagasaki had become what so any cities in Asia have become for me on my visits: crowded megatropolitan capitalist spins offs.
Of course, embedded in the opera is the clash between western military imperialism vs. Japanese traditional aesthetic and sensibilities. Lieutenant Pinkerton’s misogynistic and imperialistic attitude in “leasing” both a house and a wife, acknowledging the loopholes in a contract he has every intention of breaking, is both ghastly and familiar. In his first aria, “Dovunque al mondo” Pinkerton describes how the American “roams the world over in devil-may-care fashion, daunted by nothing, making conquests on his own terms.” (Hello, who got this playbook?) How can we not see the opera in today’s perilous times, when the US seems all too willing to break its political ties or at least “renegotiate” its obligations?
But there is also an acknowledgement between urban crassness and an older, more “pure” set of values. The wedding of Pinkerton to the poor geisha girl known as Butterfly, is practically gatecrashed by her extended family of “clowns” rushing in on the scene like a bunch of bargain basement hunters. Throughout the act, Goro, a kind of presiding master of ceremonies, is very clearly an opportunistic capitalist whose combined entrepreneurial roles include real estate agent, marriage broker, and pimp. He rushes around the guests-turned-graphic mannequins.
Only Butterfly and The Bonze with his helpers escape the brutish color-coded modernity. Throughout the performance dressed in white, she is indeed a butterfly, floating and trembling with exquisite fragility in space, inevitably to be “whited out.” The figure of The Bonze here represents a traditional ghost-god. He also wears white, a symbol both of purity and perhaps death.
Ermonela Jaho is stunning as Cio-Cio-San, with a gorgeous voice that rides Puccini’s exquisite vocal lines like a gossamer thread trembling in the breeze or butterfly ascending in her delicate dance and then – throwing out her arms like great butterfly wings — exploding with emotional intensity. Jaho takes us into the very moment-to-moment emotional breathing of the role, so clearly does she embody this character.
Brian Jagde is just about equally perfect as Pinkerton. He has a gorgeous tenor voice that carries with it a special power opera lovers call spinto, which shifts effortlessly into the extra gear of sound and emotion and leaves the audience gasping.
The first act ends with one of the most beautiful duets in opera as the lovers come together outside their little bungalow. Jaho and Jagde sing with passion the rapturous “Viene la sera” as they answer the call of love. “So many stars. I’ve never seen them so beautiful.”
closes May 21, 2017
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The other characters are not quite as individualized or perhaps only seem dimmed next to the dominance of the design statements.
Kristen Choi is such a terrific singer-actress. I saw her do the role of Suzuki at Glimmerglass and was awestruck. In her WNO debut, she had some great moments. At one point, dragging and kicking Goro in his cotton-pants sitter, she shows herself to be a tough street survivor. Later, she grabs Butterfly in her arms and cuddles with her and her child. Her duet with Jaho was simply beautiful. But for the most part, the staging made her character more emblematic than three-dimensional.
Troy Cook as Sharpless sang well but also seemed somewhat muted in definition. His Sharpless was less of a clearly conflicted colleague to Pinkerton and go-between for him and his Japanese bride than I would have liked with this complex character. Allegra De Vita as Pinkerton’s American wife made a strong statement in her entrance and her singing line but then was directed mostly to stand facing upstage, and we lost her own (albeit short) emotional journey in this story. Characters served as secondary to the wow design statement.
Let’s face it – you can’t dim the presence nor the voice of Timothy J. Bruno. As The Bonze he was given a mask and arresting costume. He took on and fulfilled a larger-than-life persona, something much more than (as written) Butterfly’s uncle. He became an almost ghost-like ancestor-figure, and manifested the iconic choreographic style with a presence that gave his character an eerie, unforgettable strength. Michael Adams is another one who stands out because of his careful, idiosyncratic detail that makes a statement no matter the size of his role. As Prince Yamadori he stepped out of a rickshaw to win over Cio-Cio-San with every slightly lifted step and stiff gesture showing us a man not entirely comfortable in his spanking new western suit and shoes with spats. His Yamadori is an original, and because of this grabbed my attention and sympathies.
Ian McEuen returns to the WNO stage as Goro and fares well in this stylized version of Madame Butterfly, scooting around the stage, rapping open a fan loudly, and in other ways manipulating his every deal with crisp visual clarity.
There is one more actor I would like to compliment though not listed in the character line up: the young man who plays Pinkerton’s and Cio-Cio-San’s child. He had delightfully timed moves whether running between his mother and Suzuki for comfort, scooping up and playing with cherry blossom “snow,” or patting his distressed mother’s shoulder. I hope to see him again on the Kennedy Center stage.
Another big plus in the show rife with Kaneko’s singular design elements is the long orchestral stretch which indicates the passage of time when Butterfly, after three years vigil, waits up one last night to be reunited with Pinkerton. Filling the music with stage business is a huge challenge for any director. Here Leslie Swackhamer wisely chooses to give the visuals a rest and let the orchestra have its moment.
Philippe Auguin takes the opportunity and runs with it. Suddenly the WNO orchestra seems to grow to twice its size and luminosity. What wonderful playing! Auguin knows Puccini’s score so well and he continues to find ever-richer colors and exciting forward movement with his orchestra.
Finally, abandoned and shamed, Butterfly takes her life. A big red Japanese flag-like sun bleeds down the scrim.
The emotion of the evening doesn’t end there. When Jaho emerges from the curtain for her first bow, she seems to collapse in a deep curtsy and grabs the edge of the curtain for balance and strength, a crushed butterfly. When others join her for the big company call, Auguin and his Butterfly have a special heartfelt moment. The roar of bravos rain down on them all, but especially for our wonderful Butterfly. Bravissima!
There are only 12 more performances, and this is the last opera of the season. Wouldn’t it be tragic to never experience a “Butterfly” in your life?
Madame Butterfly. Composed by Giacomo Puccini. Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Music Direction and Conducted by Philippe Auguin. Stage Direction by Leslie Swackhamer. Set and Costumes designed by Jun Kaneko. With Ermonela Jaho, Brian Jagde, Troy Cook, Kristen Choi, Ian McEuen Timothy J Bruno, Michael Adams, Allegra De Vita, Andrew Bogard, James Shaffran, and the Washington National Opera’s Chorus. Produced by Washington National Opera in co-production with Opera Omaha and San Francisco Opera. Presented by the Kennedy Center Opera House. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.