Wednesday 25 June 2014

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (Scottish Opera 2014 - Belfast)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Scottish Opera, Belfast 2014

Marco Guidarini, David McVicar, Elaine Kidd, Hye-Youn Lee, Louise Collett, José Ferrero, Marcin Bronikowski, Adrian Thompson, Jonathan May, Catrin Aur, Andrew McTaggart

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 21 June 2014

Revived in 2014, David McVicar's 2000 production of Madama Butterfly for the Scottish Opera proves to be a sensitive working of Puccini's opera. It's perhaps not quite as daring or radical as some of McVicar's later opera interpretations, retaining many of the familiar elements that an audience would expect to see in Madama Butterfly, but there are enough little touches to show that there's been serious attention given to the work and indeed to how it works.

The first thing you notice about the set for Scottish Opera's production is that while you have the familiar low-lying platform and screens for a Japanese house, the set is slightly askew in perspective. What this suggests is obvious, but it's emphasised by the sepia toned quality of the colouring, the deep colouration and the cut of the costumes set against them. This is not a kitsch stylised Madama Butterfly, or one that suggests nostalgia for a period and goes through the motions of playing out the melodrama, but one rather that is striving for a sense of realism for the sensibility of the period, as well viewing it from the perspective of those involved.

Careful attention to Puccini's score does indeed suggest that this approach is validated by the music itself and that it's not as syrupy, sentimental and manipulative as it is reputed. Madama Butterfly is certainly romantic but it's not romanticised; it still has those verismo characteristics in how it follows through realistically on the harsh consequences of such heightened melodrama. McVicar's direction doesn't need any little tricks to manipulate the power of the score itself, choosing rather to introduce a few little "delayed impact" touches that draw back from any heavy-handedness. The director for example tips the hand early in Act II to let the audience know before the traditional revelation that Cio-Cio San has had a child in Pinkerton's absence. The finale too is more sensitive than usual - yes it can be done with sensitivity - with the falling of the knife in her death scene not striking on the note but just before it, letting the actual impact of her death rather than the act itself have the final say.

A similar sense of sensitivity is there throughout. I've seen ballet dancers introduced into Madama Butterfly before (Sferisterio 2009), for example, but I've never realised how ballet-like Puccini's score is in its storytelling. There's no actual dancing in this production, but there are telling little touches that show that the director (or revival director) is actually listening to the score and taking dramatic, emotional and movement cues from the music. Discovering that Butterfly is fifteen, Sharpless observes, "The age for playing" ('L'età dei giuochi'), while Pinkerton boldly claims (in this translation), "Old enough for a wedding dress" ('E dei confetti'). Here the moment is marked with a little skip and twirl of Butterfly in Pinkerton's arms that gives a sense of both the youth of the girl and the romance of the sentiment.

This could have been played as sleazy, but that's judging it by today's standards and not with a sense for the period place or the time. It doesn't make it right of course, but the director knows that this will be borne out by later events and it doesn't need any directorial input to tell the audience how they ought to feel. The twirl is indeed picked up later, an echo of that moment of romance, but with subtle darkening of tone. Joseph Kerman ('Music as Drama') might disagree, but Puccini is a master of using music and melody to tell stories - he just might not do it according to "rules". I admit that it bothers me that the composer uses the same music or hints at the Humming Chorus in an earlier scene where Sharpless delivers Pinkerton's letter when there's really nothing that justifies connecting these two moments. (Don't even ask who is supposed to be singing the Humming Chorus!). It's hardly the correct employment of Wagnerian leitmotif, but Puccini has a wonderful ability to use the same music with subtle variations to tell us different things and make it work.

The strength of the direction here is that it trusts Puccini's music to be strong enough to tell the story in its own way and determine the precise tone. Marco Guidarini's sensitive conducting of the Scottish Opera orchestra does much to achieve that also, and the singing isn't bad either. From the first moment she walks onto the stage it's clear that Hye-Youn Lee is going to be an outstanding Cio-Cio San. Her voice rings high, her control is marvellous, and her characterisation as a young innocent girl is utterly credible in her acting performance as well as in the careful tone, delivery and timbre of her voice. Butterfly needs to be dazzling without seeming to be too commanding or experienced beyond her years, and Hye-Youn Lee gets that absolutely right.

José Ferrero is a little bit harsh on first appearance as Pinkerton, particularly in his scenes with Marcin Bronikowski's fine performance as the US Consul Sharpless, but he settles into the role very well when playing against Lee's Butterfly. With revival director Elaine Kidd behind McVicar's solid and perfectly attuned production and strong performances from the orchestra and singers, Scottish Opera's Madama Butterfly is a perfect demonstration of why this particular work remains one of the greatest and most popular works of lyric stage. When it's performed right, Madama Butterfly is simply as good as dramatic opera gets.