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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly (1904) [137.00]
Alexia Voulgaridou (soprano) – Butterfly; Teodor Ilincai (tenor) – Pinkerton; Lauri Vasar (baritone) – Sharpless; Cristina Damian (mezzo) – Suzuki; Jürgen Sacher (tenor) – Goro; Viktor Rud (baritone) – Yamadori; Ida Aldrian (mezzo) – Kate Pinkerton; Jongmin Park (bass) – Bonze; Eun-Seok Jang (baritone) – Yakuside; Thomas Florio (bass) – Imperial Commissioner; Doo-Jong Kim (tenor) – Registrar; Ines Krebs (mezzo) – Butterfly’s mother; Bettina Rösel (soprano) – Cousin; Veselina Teneva (mezzo) – Cousin
Hamburg State Opera Chorus; Hamburg Philharmoniker/Alexander Joel
rec. Hamburg State Opera, November 2012
No extras.
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102187 DVD [137.00]

The first production which sought to remove Madam Butterfly from the realm of exotic Japanoiserie to which it had virtually become consigned was probably that by Joachim Herz. He made this for Komische Oper Berlin and Welsh National Opera in 1976. By reverting partially to Puccini’s original score — before its revision to accommodate the tastes of Italian audiences in 1904 — he emphasised the contrast between the Japanese and American protagonists. This can be seen in particular in Pinkerton’s total incomprehension of the mores of Japanese culture manifested through a number of tastelessly xenophobic remarks which the composer later toned down or removed. In the Second Act he showed how Butterfly’s wish to conform to American stereotypes led her into an imitation of a style of Americana which further distanced her from her Japanese roots. Only at the end, when she had rejected Pinkerton’s subsequently omitted attempts to buy her off — conveyed second-hand through the mouth of the embarrassed Sharpless — did she finally revert to her native milieu. This production, maintained in the WNO repertory for many years, seems disgracefully enough never to have made it onto video in any form. Many of the same concerns and ideas that Herz sought to portray in the 1970s are echoed, forty years later, by the production under discussion here.
 
It has to be said that Vincent Boussard, the producer here, generally fails to live up to the standard of Herz at almost every significant point. In the first place, he has updated the action to what appears to be the late 1960s – at least that is what is implied by the furniture and clothing adopted by Butterfly in her pathetic attempts to create an ‘American household.’. I don’t believe that anybody in Japan would have been as naïve in that later era as to accept Pinkerton’s assertions of undying love at face value. It also blunts the characterisation of Butterfly’s uncle the Bonze as the epitome of traditional Japanese culture when he appears in what looks like the uniform of a member of the officer class from the Second World War. Boussard completely fails to capitalise on Puccini’s infallibly tear-jerking moment when Butterfly produces her son to Sharpless. What she does here is drag out a manikin which is handled with complete indifference by both herself and Suzuki. Butterfly may be self-delusional, but she is not totally deranged to the extent implied here. A little earlier she has grabbed Pinkerton’s letter to herself, leaving Sharpless to recite the words of it without any pretence of reading it – unless he has memorised every word in advance. This is another point where the production completely misses the point of the music.
 
Butterfly is the only opera by Puccini in which the set remains unchanged throughout the whole of the action. It is an additional pity that the set here — Vincent Lemaire is credited as the designer — is so seriously unevocative. There is a long spiral staircase ascending from the floor to the height of the stage, up which the characters wander at various times. One wonders what any self-respecting health and safety officer would have said about this. Certainly singers in the past, Pavarotti the most notable example, would have simply refused to do what is demanded of the protagonists here. Butterfly for example goes halfway up these stairs to declare her conversion to Christianity. This makes nonsense of her secrecy about the fact, which she is supposed to disclose to Pinkerton alone. At other times the performers simply circumnavigate the staircase without seeming to notice it at all. Butterfly grabs her ‘son’ from halfway up the stairs, where he has been lying abandoned throughout the first half of the Second Act. Not a good moment.
 
The singers are a youthful crew, and none the worse for that since they are all well capable of musically encompassing their roles. The Sharpless indeed looks too young to be convincing as the fatherly advisor he is clearly meant to be – Pinkerton early on refers to him as someone of ‘your age’. Butterfly succeeds no better than any other soprano capable of delivering the role in convincing us that she is only fifteen years old in Act One. On the other hand Teodor Ilincai is a delightfully boyish Pinkerton, careless rather than callous, and Alexia Voulgaridou has all the body — in all senses, tastefully displayed during the Love Duet — for the role of Butterfly. In her entrance she takes Puccini’s lower option for the voice, which is musically preferable in any event and avoids any sense of strain. Lauri Vascar as the consul manages to convey plenty of expression despite his disconcertingly youthful appearance. He doesn’t wring the heart as he should when he beseeches Butterfly to accept Yamadori’s proposal of marriage. One also recalls other touches in Herz’s production, such as Suzuki’s violent reaction when Sharpless suggests that the boy might not be Pinkerton’s son, which here go for simply nothing. Suzuki is well sung by Cristian Damian. She mimes along to Butterfly’s words just before the all-night vigil and then — during the music for the Humming Chorus — takes the doll ‘Trouble’ and puts him in a cupboard along with a whole collection of other puppets. Here one gets the impression that she is as deluded as her mistress. Jürgen Sacher makes an impression as Goro, but the remainder of the cast is good rather than outstanding.
 
There are other problems with the presentation, too. There’s an extended orchestral interlude which precedes what Puccini even in his revised version called “Act Two, Part Two” but which this presentation unashamedly and incorrectly terms “Act Three”. During this interlude the camera continually cuts away from the stage to show the orchestra in the pit, effectively destroying the sense of the night passing to dawn. Instead Butterfly takes the opportunity to display her body again behind a screen as she changes her costume. This is not the only visual and musical miscalculation, either. During the wedding scene Puccini’s ‘Japanese bells’ are played on what sounds like a glockenspiel, a couple of octaves too high. Elsewhere Alexander Joel paces the score well, although in places he ignores Puccini’s demands for molto ritenuto. There’s an example, just before the entry of the birdsong in the dawn sequence – which by the way is far too reticent for Puccini’s marked accents, being practically inaudible here.
 
The principals are all good actors within the limits of what the production permits them to do, and Voulgaridou and Ilincai would be especially welcome in any other context. However the final minutes of this presentation illustrate precisely what is wrong in the staging. Butterfly has already had to address her lullaby to a non-existent child earlier in ‘Act Three’ but in the final scene there is nobody left to whom she should sing her farewell. Instead she simply stands up from the knife, walks to the back of the stage — without the weapon — and disappears behind a screen. Just before Pinkerton enters, rather lackadaisically for someone who clearly fears the worst, a door opens and the puppet child falls out onto the floor, with his head rolling across the stage. This is dramatically risible, and the offence is compounded as Pinkerton completely ignores the scene with which he is presented and instead climbs slowly up the spiral staircase without a backward glance. This makes nonsense of Puccini’s music at this point, with its startling and shattering unresolved discord at the conclusion.
 
There are some good ideas in this production, although most of them seem to have been anticipated by earlier presentations such as those by Herz. Most of the other innovations are quite simply unacceptable. Butterfly is one of those sure-fire operas that should never leave the audience unmoved in its depiction of the tragic clash of cultures between East and West. This one left me resolutely dry-eyed throughout. A Butterfly that fails in this regard cannot be redeemed even by the most superlative singing and acting.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey