Saturday, 9 February 2019

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (London, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Royal Opera House, London - 2017

Antonio Pappano, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, Ermolela Jaho, Marcelo Puente, Scott Hendricks, Elizabeth Deshong, Carlo Bosi, Jeremy White, Yuriy Yurchuk, Emily Edmonds

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Straight off I'm sure you can think of two good reasons why you would want to watch yet another version of Madama Butterfly, this one recorded at the Royal Opera House in 2017. The first reason is that it's conducted by Antonio Pappano, who has delivered some sublime performances of Puccini at Covent Garden. The second is Ermonela Jaho and again it's primarily for her Puccini, first really coming to attention of the London audience in Suor Angelica. There's a third reason obviously, which is the opera itself which is sure to have a compelling charge with this combination of artists.

As it happens you won't be disappointed or let down by any of those expectations. What is rarer, and which you might not see at the Royal Opera House production nor expect to see, is a production that successfully explores the work in any new way or adapts its themes. No matter what else a director brings to Madama Butterfly it simply has to deliver on colour, spectacle and exoticism above all else. Much like Richard Jones' recent refresh of the Royal Opera House's La Bohème, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier keep this production relatively traditional but hopefully not too familiar, allowing it to be adaptable to the tone and themes of the work rather than simply providing pretty picture postcard imagery.

The house that Pinkerton purchases for his new Japanese bride then retains the familiar paper panelled walls of a traditional Japanese house, but they are oversized screens that when raised offer different views and backgrounds. Initially we have a period photo view of Nagasaki when Pinkerton arrives, a cherry blossom and rolling hills in a Japanese painting for Cio-Cio-San's arrival that has the same stylised feel as the Royal Opera House's Turandot, making it look like the ROH are aiming for a middle-of-the-road consistent style in their Puccini operas (and perhaps elsewhere).

The production retains the familiarity of the location, keeps the costumes traditional and sticks to the themes of culture clash and romantic ideals. The background representation and lighting however become a little more abstractly tied to the emotional undercurrents as the opera progresses. The background goes black for the stormy arrival of the Bonze and Kate Pinkerton first appears as an ominous shadow silhouetted against the screens outside. The end of Butterfly's dreams is accompanied by the falling blooms of a magnolia, again against a death black background.

As expected then Ermonela Jaho's performance is worth seeing. She doesn't always have the fullness of voice that you need for the role, but there's some lovely singing here, true passion and a strong dramatic performance, all of which combined succeed in hitting you where it hurts. Pappano is equally adept turning it on and holding back at all the right places, showing us the cracks beneath the gloss as Butterfly's ideal surrenders to the reality. And regardless of whether the story may be manipulative, there is a heightened emotional realism of the passions in Madama Butterfly that Puccini succeeds in delivering and which the production at least attempts to emulate.

Since we are enumerating good reasons why this particular production is worth watching, the next on the list would be Elizabeth Deshong. No slight on Marcelo Puente who sings Pinkerton well even though he's characterisation here is a little non-committal, but it's Elizabeth Deshong's Suzuki who really impresses, expressing everything that Cio-Cio-San is unable or unwilling to recognise and making it just as heartfelt as those revelations that eventually reach her mistress. Scott Hendricks - ouch! - is sadly well out of his comfort zone as Sharpless and it does unfortunately present a rather jarring effect in the scenes in which he appears. Carlo Bosi on the other hand is an experienced Goro, but - perhaps like the production as a whole - it's all too familiar to really allow any nuance or newness to creep in.

On Blu-ray, Madama Butterfly is a treat for the quality of the visual presentation, not least for how the lossless high resolution audio tracks allow the listener to appreciate the detail of the composition and the quality and dynamism of the musical performance. Extras include an Introduction to the opera, Pappano and Jaho in rehearsal and a Cast Gallery. Helen Greenwald recounts the history of the work's composition, its dramatic inspiration and its oriental musical influences, as well as the now familiar account of the catastrophic reception of the work at its premiere at La Scala in Milan.

Links: Royal Opera House