Saturday, 26 April 2014

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (Hamburg 2012 - Blu-ray)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Staatsoper Hamburg, 2012

Alexander Joel, Vincent Boussard, Alexia Voulgaridou, Christina Damian, Ida Aldrian, Teodor Ilincal, Lauri Vascar, Jürgen Scaher, Viktor Rud, Jongmin Park, Thomas Florio

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

One thing I've noticed about the  few opera productions I've seen by Vincent Boussard (La Finta Giardiniera, La Favorite), other than the fact that he likes reflective stages, is that he manages to do a lot with very little, with minimalist stagings that are eye-catching and give the impression of being more elaborate. There are some places where this approach works better than others, and it's usually when the music and the libretto of the operas in question are strong enough to stand on their own. Madama Butterfly is certainly a work that fits into that category, but it nevertheless usually comes with a lot of additional stage baggage and stereotypical imagery that borders on kitsch.  Can Madama Butterfly survive without cherry blossoms, silk kimonos and bamboo houses with paper screens?

Boussard finds a way to retain the essence of this imagery, but presents it in a relatively minimalist fashion in this Hamburg production of Madama Butterfly, and he does so without losing anything of the exotic spectacle. That much is essential in as far as it presents the idealised beauty and perfection of an arranged marriage that underneath isn't quite as ideal as it appears on the surface. That is something that Boussard takes as the basis for the overall concept here and by and large it works without distorting the intent of the work, but there are also one or two interpretative twists here that everyone might not agree work as well or even consider necessary.

The costumes, by Christian Lacroix, look stylised traditional, with obis and big hats, although reflecting Cio-Cio-San's adoption of American ways she wears jeans and a sweatshirt for Act II. In terms of the set design itself however, this Madama Butterfly looks every bit as minimalistically oriental and yet subtly elegant as it ought to do. Largely, the set for the entire three acts is based around a spiral staircase at the centre of the stage, with only large panels behind. These however slide back to open up to the seasons and the passage of the day outside, as well as being used for off-stage locations for Madama Butterfly and Suzuki to retire to at significant points. It's very much an 'interior' design then and functional for the purposes of the work, but a subtle play of light and colour suggests other moods and situations.

If it's all about establishing the essential mood for each scene, you could say that Boussard's production is a little over-elaborate in its use of colour. More than just reflecting the time of day or the seasons, the lighting here changes from moment to moment with purple and yellow washes adjusted by bold reds and greens, saturating the stage like a scene from a Wong Kar-wai movie. Whether Puccini's rich scoring and balance of moods needs that kind emphasis is debatable and a matter of taste, but there's no doubt that the set and lighting follows and relates closely to those rapid switches between one extreme emotion and another.

It's this idea of extremes, of being bathed in an image of perfection and an ideal, that lies at the heart of Madama Butterfly. The exotic of the Oriental appeals to US Navy Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. His marriage to a young 15 year-old Japanese girl something of a dream in which he succumbs to the illusion of a perfect marriage to a submissive and attentive wife for a brief period before having to deal with the reality back home. For Cio-Cio-San, the fantasy is more deep-rooted and necessary to escape from an otherwise terrible fate as a geisha, a prostitute or bound to a loveless marriage in the Japanese style.

This is why Cio-Cio-San buys into her husband's American lifestyle with the Western ideal of it being a marriage based on love. She can't afford to consider the event, even after three years absence, the Pinkerton will not return. Her illusions are all crystallised in her centrepiece aria 'Un bel di vedremo', where every detail and every gesture of their joyful reunion is perfectly rehearsed in her mind. Those hopes are confounded if not entirely shattered in the very next scene with the Consul bringing a letter with news from Pinkerton, since Cio-Cio-San is unwilling to admit the intent of the words and Sharpless can't quite bring himself to deliver them.

This creates a kind of dramatic tension between two different kinds of reality that Puccini, with his basis in verismo, vividly depicts. The romantic illusions that sustain both Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton are just as "real" to them as reality, and they consequently pack a full emotional punch as they are elaborated and just as quickly punctured in the next scene. More than just holding a suspension between illusions and reality however, Madama Butterfly likewise swings between the difference between male and female sensibilities, as well as between the clash of cultures and it sustains a similar weighted tension between them all.

Boussard's production, mood and lighting, follows these developments very closely but it leads the director to make a few decisions that don't perhaps hold up as well. One can understand how Cio-Cio-San can make a little shrine to her delusions - a letter, a whisky glass and a bottle of liquor - but whether those should be seen as extending to their child is another matter. It's clear from the libretto that the child is real, but Boussard muddies the issue by not having a real child on the stage, but making use of a large doll instead. He also takes the final death scene off-stage, which is a brave decision, but there's no denying that it does rob the conclusion of some of its intended emotional impact.

If the intention is to let the strength of the music and the singing speak for itself, at least the Hamburg production has some fine singers who are capable of giving the work a full and nuanced expression. It's absolutely essential that you believe in these characters that are so well written by Puccini (in spite of some stereotypes), and if sung well they work. They work here. Freed from the usual mannerisms, Alexia Voulgaridou is able to emotionally delve into the work anew and sings wonderfully and with tremendous force. It's a riveting performance. Teodor Ilincal is a lyrical tenor in the classic traditional mould, his B.F. Pinkerton naive and romantic rather than exploitative and insensitive. Christina Damian's Suzuki is also very fine and adds considerably to the overall quality of this production. As too does the excellent account of the work by the Hamburg Philharmonic conducted by Alexander Joel.

On Blu-ray, the video transfer is very good. It looks a little softer than most, mainly on account of the colour saturation, but the colour reproduction and the beauty of the set is impressive. There's only one audio track on this release, a PCM stereo track, but it's strong and gives a good account of the singing and the orchestration. Other than trailers, there are no extra features on the BD, but the booklet comes with an interview with Vincent Boussard that discusses his approach to the work. Region-free, subtitles on the release are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.