Saturday, March 3, 2012

Ogni farfalla da uno spillo è trafitta

I have a Really Shameful Confession, Gentle Readers: before last night, I'd never seen Madama Butterfly live. I don't know how many times I listened to recordings before being able to do so without an intermission to stalk wrathfully around the apartment, grumbling choice epithets for Pinkerton... but I digress. I went for the sake of Patricia Racette's Cio-Cio-San, and out of curiosity about Anthony Minghella's production; neither disappointed. Seen in person at last, Minghella's production is indeed stunningly beautiful, as well as overtly theatrical. With so problematic a text, it struck me as no bad expedient to force the audience into awareness of how artificial the presentation of this brutal drama as romantic spectacle is. The Personenregie was musically sensitive and highlighted personal interactions intelligently and poignantly. While the stylized crowd scenes appear as through Pinkerton's (exoticizing, Othering) perspective, more intimate moments are staged to reflect Butterfly's point of view. This is haunting in the orchestral lead-in to Act II (one moment, domestic bliss; the next, Pinkerton simply disappears) and during the Humming Chorus, but perhaps most effective in the ecstatic finale of Act I, a fantasy of lanterns and showering peonies. (All that said, the staging is not unproblematic, as Zerbinetta of Likely Impossibilities has pointed out.) Racette's performance was the musical highlight, though other singers made notable contributions as well.

Plácido Domingo's conducting, alas, was disappointing: a lack of focus glossed over much of the orchestral detail, which resulted in a failure to create, much less sustain, dramatic tension (there was no erotic promise, no threatened violence.) This may have saved my mascara, as it pulled me back from the edge of immersion more than once; this I resented. The excellent work of Tony Stevenson as Goro garnered the most enthusiastic applause of the evening, barring that for the prima donna. He did not indulge in comic gimmickry in gesture or voice, mercifully, relying instead on incisive, sly diction and strong singing. Laurent Naouri made a sympathetic Sharpless, using his warm, smooth baritone with expressive phrasing and attention to text. He was thoughtful in small gestures, as well, creating a portrayal alive to the consul's divided loyalties. Maria Zifchak's earthy mezzo contrasted nicely with Racette's sound, and she sang strongly as the pragmatic, compassionate Suzuki. As Pinkerton, Roberto De Biasio sounded much more at ease than the last time I heard him. He gave good impulsion to the careless officer's tossed-off phrases, but also sang with real sweetness of tone in the tender moments of the first act. He also, admirably I think, made Pinkerton despicably weak-willed and self-pitying.

Patricia Racette created a multifaceted and deeply moving portrayal of Cio-Cio-San. Graceful and even self-effacing in movement, she gave Butterfly with an always-visible gravitas, aided by the strength and security of her lower range. Her warmth was always anchored by a sense of her own dignity, secure enough to be generous. I lost track of the number of times I got misty-eyed, as her familiarity with the role unfolded the tragedy in small moments; no phrase went unconsidered. (To cite but one example: the tense agony of her asking Suzuki if Pinkerton is still alive was almost unbearable.) The top of her voice could sound fragile, but her commitment was thoughtful and unwavering. Her Cio-Cio-San chose death as the only release from a trap created by others. And her death was staged as spectacle, and I stood aghast.

Curtain call photos:

Cast: Naouri, De Biasio, and Stevenson in foreground
I was unprepared for Minghella's last theatrical image: the diva as sacrificial victim. I wasn't sure whether or not the rest of the enthusiastically applauding audience felt as uncomfortable as I did.

Patricia Racette


  1. How did they stage the ending? I'm all curious now.

    The music is so beautiful, and yet every time I hear Butterfly, I want to reach into the action and bitch-slap Pinkerton. It doesn't help that his name brings to mind a boiled pig, either.

    Back in my freshman year, I saw this bizarre play, M. Butterfly, about a modern French officer's recreation of the Butterfly story in his own life...except Butterfly in this case turned out to be both a man and a Communist spy for China (and, at one point, completely naked). I think I would like the opera better.

    1. Ah! Sorry, I figured it was sort of (in)famous: she's alone in a spotlight on a darkened stage (Trouble sits to the side in his own little light, blindfolded.) She takes out her father's sword, sings "Con onor muore," and when she stabs herself, her scarlet obi is unfolded by dancers, and she collapses in a river of silk/blood. It's this image that Pinkerton reenters to. It's on DVD, and parts may be on YouTube.

      I hadn't realized that M. Butterfly was a play! It's also a brilliant, deeply unsettling film by David Cronenberg, with Jeremy Irons as the French diplomat/Pinkerton/Butterfly.

    2. re M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang wrote the play, the leads on Broadway, iirc, were played by John Lithgow and B D Wong.

    3. OMG Jeremy Irons?! That's got to be terrifying. I was so mad at the play, at what I perceived as the stupidity of the characters. Of course, I was only eighteen, but the whole concept seemed so bizarre to me that I wasn't at all sold.

      I did find the finale on YouTube: I find it very interesting. Racette is an amazing singer. I found the staging to be very powerful.

    4. @stray Thanks for the info! A play heaped with awards and fame, no less! I am covered in blushes.

      @Christie Re: Jeremy Irons... yep. Scarily intense self-delusion, arrogance, and vulnerability. I've only seen Racette twice live, but I find her very compelling/sympathetic: beautiful voice and intense dramatic commitment.

    5. Probably worked better in the Irons/Cronenberg iteration, which I should have seen by now, but haven't. (There's my blush.) Thanks, Lucy, for reminding us it exists. I suspect the play rates as officially "before your time", so you get a pass.


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