Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly
Teatro alla Scala, Milan - 2016
Riccardo Chailly, Alvis Hermanis, Maria José Siri, Annalisa Stroppa, Carlos Álvarez, Bryan Hymel, Carlo Bosi
ARTE Concert - December 2016
With all its kitsch Orientalism, do we really expect to find realism in Madama Butterfly? Maybe not in the conventional sense, but there is a kind of realism in how Puccini and David Belasco's original play (based on a true story) recognise western attitudes towards the lure of the exotic East (which includes racist and stereotypical views) and how the incompatibility of those views with the reality can have tragic consequences for both sides. Musically too there have always remained question marks about Puccini's emotional manipulation, so it was going to be interesting to see what would be revealed in the La Scala production of the original two-act version of Madama Butterfly that Puccini quickly abandoned and revised after its failed premiere in 1904. The results are impressive and, for me at least, a complete revelation and revindication of the work.
Latvian director Alvis Hermanis seems to find the perfect place between realism and the ideal in his production for La Scala. It looks traditional in one respect having all the associated imagery and colour we expect to find in Madama Butterfly, with its sliding screens and cherry blossoms, traditional geisha make-up and obis. In the same way that his Jenůfa for La Monnaie in Brussels made use of the imagery of Alphonse Mucha, the director here taps into another authentic source for representation of the place and the period, using photographs from the start of the 20th century as a basis for the costumes and the design. It draws from the very imagery that inspires these idealised and stereotypical views that come out in US naval officer Francis Blummy Pinkerton.
F.B. Pinkerton, in this original version of Madama Butterfly (and often too in the more familiar revised version) is a just as much a vulgar stereotype of the brash American as Cio-Cio San is an idealised western image that persists of the Japanese woman as a fragile, silent, submissive doll. If that's the ideal that Pinkerton wants he can buy it, and dollars are flashed and handed out liberally to everyone who helps him acquire that dream. It's a contractual arrangement to legitimise the more uncomfortable reality that he is buying a 15 year-old girl to sleep with. Regardless of the dressing - and Madama Butterfly is exquisitely dressed here in the gorgeous costume designs - I don't think there's any attempt to hide the true nature of this sordid little set up.
And there's no attempt either in this opera to pretend that such a situation will end in anything but disaster and tears. And tears are always guaranteed by the time we get to the always shocking finale, but Puccini is surely justified in provoking them. At heart Madama Butterfly is not a study of idealism versus reality in a social context nor an exploration of the incompatibility of diverse cultural worldviews, it's a conflict on a more personal level, on a romantic level, between what a man expects out of this unconventional arrangement and how the woman views it. Pinkerton believes that anything of value can be bought, that even nature will bow down to the dollar. Madama Butterfly - despite the superficial adherence to rituals and traditions - shows that the human heart cannot be bought. Putting aside the oriental touches in the music, it's on this level that Puccini's music operates and it hits there at the deepest point.
All of these elements and the deeper implications are brought out exceptionally well in the La Scala production. It's ravishingly beautiful, it satisfies an audience who prefer a more traditional approach, but by playing to those expectations it also highlights the very prejudices that the opera is criticising and fully realises the musical world that Puccini has created for the opera. It's totally involving and enveloping, all the more so for Riccardo Chially's superb musical direction and the quality of the singing, which is of a very high standard right across all the principal roles. Bryan Hymel is still Byran Hymel; wonderfully lyrical, entering fully into the role and taking the high notes gloriously but sounding pushed and constricted when there is more body needed in the lower range. Annalisa Stroppa and Carlos Álvarez are both terrific as Suzuki and Sharpless, showing the value of these roles.
There can be no praise too high to describe Maria José Siri's performance as Cio-Cio San. More than just beautifully sung to meet the exacting standards of the La Scala audience, it was an extraordinarily complete performance that practically lived out the role on the stage. The singing alone is a challenge for any dramatic soprano, but imagine living through the extreme range of emotions that Puccini scores for in such a concentrated, heightened fashion. No soprano experienced enough to sing this role is ever going to pass in appearance for a 15 year old girl, but Maria José Siri evokes the innocence and inexperience of the girl in every expression and in every note, completely assuming the role.
There's the rapturous innocence of Act I, the firmness of her convictions bordering on delusion in Act II, the combination of which leads inevitably to the tragic conclusion in Act III. If you get the first two Acts right, then Act III is going to follow through and hit hard the way it should. Well, it can hardly fail in any case, but it makes all the difference if there is that strength of character and conviction placed behind it. I think you could tell how well Maria José Siri was going to assume that role well before 'Un bel dì vedremo', so there was also plenty of time to prepare yourself for the emotional impact of the conclusion, which indeed is pretty much near devastating.
Of course I'm talking here as if this were the three-Act version of Madama Butterfly, when in reality this production goes right back to the original poorly received 1904 two-Act version. Despite reports of it being extensively revised by Puccini, the original doesn't appear to be significantly different from the more familiar version of the opera as we all know it. The Humming Chorus is still there - not as long I think - as a link between Act II and the concluding scene. I was interested and glad to hear however that its melody isn't there when Sharpless attempts to read Pinkerton's letter to Butterfly. I have never liked it there, feeling it was out of place, particularly as it is so well-known now as a kind of expectant night music or lullaby.
The more significant revisions however are reported to be in the tone of the racism expressed by the Americans and the callousness of Pinkerton. That to me however is more of an issue of interpretation, as I've seen more sympathetic Pinkerton's certainly, but depending on how it is directed Pinkerton can still come across as a heartless cad in the familiar three-Act version. Greater emphasis can also be placed on his willingness to 'buy' a 15 year old girl as a 'bride'. Mrs Pinkerton has a little more of a role in this version, but I'm sure I've seen her role developed before and always thought it was cut according to the production. I could be wrong.
Essentially however, the familiar Madama Butterfly is entirely there in all its ravishing beauty and dark romanticism. Alvis Hermanis's production looks stunning, keeping it traditional and period, with an authenticity in detail and manner and with no small degree of flair. Most importantly, it is utterly perfect in how it presents the mood, the drama, the romance and the tragedy, with attention to the surface impressions and the underlying tensions. If there were every any doubts about the merits of Madama Butterfly as an opera beyond its crowd-pleasing popularity, this production reminds you that it is indeed nothing short of a masterpiece.
Links: Teatro alla Scala, ARTE Concert