L’Opéra National de Paris, Opéra Bastille
Maurizio Benini, Robert Wilson, Micaela Carosi, Enkelejda Shkosa, Anna Wall, James Valenti, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Carlo Bosi, Vladimir Kapshuk, Scott Wilde
L’Opéra National de Paris, 4th February 2011
What is the colour of Madama Butterfly? You could see it in crude terms of the national flags of the two nations involved in the opera, the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes in a clash with Japan’s the Rising Sun (or indeed, more likely in this particular case, with the pink of chrysanthemums). Such a superficial reading of Madama Butterfly, based on David Belasco’s play, a sentimental tearjerker, could perhaps be justified, Puccini’s score even explicitly evoking the American flag in its Star Spangled Banner refrain and attempting to incorporate Japanese music into the score. If you close your eyes however, listen to the emotional core of the music – a much more delicate and sensitive affair than you might at first think – you might visualise the tone of Madama Butterfly as pale green. Or pale green through to deep blue, with an infinite variety of shades in between, illuminated perhaps at various points with flashes of violent red.
Robert Wilson is the master of conveying the emotional tone of an opera in terms of colour and his reading of Madama Butterfly is convincing on this account. No matter that just about every Robert Wilson production works in shades of blue, green and grey – perhaps those are the colours of opera itself. Nonetheless, even operating within such a limited palette as just a personal signature still provides plenty of scope for the director (although I personally found it very restrictive in his production of Aida for the Royal Opera House a few years ago), and it’s particularly effective in this 1993 production revived for the Paris Opera’s 2010-11 season. In terms of staging and props, the production is unexpectedly minimal – ultra-minimal even, perhaps even more sparse than usual for a Robert Wilson production. "Tutti i fiore" there are certainly not in preparation for the return of Pinkerton at the end of Act 2, and is this a dagger I see before me at the conclusion? No, it’s a mimed one.
Aside from his work for Philip Glass, I’m not used to seeing Robert Wilson’s stage productions in anything other than a mythological or generic antiquity setting, which allows plenty of room for personal touches. Madama Butterfly however is a comparatively modern opera, or one at least in a recognisable period and specific cultural setting, but that’s unimportant as far as Robert Wilson is concerned. Everyone is still dressed in togas and tunics, albeit with an almost science-fictional Oriental touch. Overall however, it’s an approach that works well for this opera, stripping it down, the action rarely extending beyond formalised gestures and hand movements that suit if not imitate Japanese social interaction, effectively undercutting the heart-tugging sentimentality of the traditional kitsch faux-Japanese setting. It also makes use of space effectively – there’s no marriage of worlds here – they sit apart, each with their own ideals and needs, and never the twain shall meet.
Toning down the staging is one thing, toning down the music or the singing in Puccini would however be fatal, and consequently the Orchestra of the Opéra de Paris plough on marvellously, not regardless of the staging, but mindful of the simplicity and the subtlety contained within Puccini’s arrangements, as well as the bombast. James Valenti however didn’t find that balance in his Pinkerton. He has a pleasantly toned voice, but it was much too gentle for this role, and he failed to cut an imposing figure as the American imperialist, even ducking some of the higher notes. He certainly didn’t please some sections of the Paris audience at the performance I attended. Micaela Carosi (introduced in the recent Paris Opera production of Andrea Chénier) was announced as being unwell, but took to the stage nonetheless and performed marvellously. She was everything you could want of a Cio-Cio San (barring ethnicity) and, despite her illness, completely mastered a difficult singing role made all the more complicated by the very specific movements, poses and gestures required for this particular production.
Ultimately, Madama Butterfly is any colour you want it to be, but it fits in rather well with Robert Wilson’s uniquely personal palette and stylisations, not detracting from the power of the opera in the way that his work did for Aida, but giving the characters and their emotional lives space, enhancing and supporting the emotional tone in a manner that draws out its subtleties without over-emphasising, vulgarising or sentimentalising the opera’s crowd-pleasing qualities.