Thursday, October 18, 2012

Not the best Butterfly

I find it rather telling, that most of my complaints I had with this production of Madama Butterfly can be laid at the feet of who ever cast it. Not all, but with a more appropriate cast, most of my complaints would not have happened.

To start with, if I said that the only two people who were cast correctly on voice type were Goro and Sharpless, you might begin to get an idea of why I was disappointed. When your character tenor is louder in the opening scene than your romantic lead, you have a problem. Early on, I was wondering if it would have been better to reverse the casting. Of course, with the veteran Graeme McFarlane, that might have changed the way we think about Pinkerton, but it still gives you an idea.

Quite frankly, as I said to people afterwards, who would expect me to be more moved by Lucia than Butterfly? That an opera I never go to unless I know the cast will lift a boring night into a thrilling one was more moving than an opera that should leave one either a blubbering mess or annoyed at the injustice of life, or hating men, I think says it all.
But why you ask? Well, to start with, I never was convinced Pinkerton was seriously interested in Butterfly. There were 2 main reasons for this. First, you need to be able to sing the music in an ardent manner, with power to burn to convince. It's not a role you give to a Mozartian tenor. To be sure, his is a beautiful voice, used well, but nothing could make up for the serious lack of power. If he had been swapped with the Edgardo we say in Lucia, both operas would have been improved, I suspect. He also did not look captivated by her. Maybe his acting did not carry to the back of the theatre, but I never felt the passion. I did not feel they were about to rip each other's clothes off after the big duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton. Considering the passionate nature of the music, and the fact we are talking their wedding night, that says damp squib more than anything else.

Our Butterfly was Japanese, and to be honest, that always gives me concerns. I have yet to hear a Japanese soprano whose voice has the power to sing Butterfly well. I'm not saying they do not exist, but Hiromi Omura did not convince me they do. Again, a beautiful voice, but not a voice with the sort of emotional power you need as Butterfly. Pretty voiced, and mostly successful in a production designed around one of Australia's more charismatic singers, but just not nearly big enough, or able to hold our interest. We need to remember, Butterfly is an Italian opera character with a Japanese veneer, not a Japanese character with an Italian veneer, which is more what we got.

Instead, we got a singer who sounded like she should have been singing Pamina, probably with a small Mozartian orchestra, not singing a big Puccini role. Yes, she produced a beautiful sound with good legato, with a sweet tone from top to bottom. But, this role needs a beautiful voice with the power to thrill, where she sounds triumphant in her climactic notes in Un bel di. Here, we did not get that. Rather we had pretty singing from a voice that was hopelessly miscast.

Suzuki you say? Well, Domenica Matthews as Suzuki was what I expected. That is to say, competent, a credible performance, but if the cast had the voices required for the role, she would have been miscast. With a small voiced Butterfly, it did not matter, but then, a big voiced Suzuki would have been wrong in this cast also
The rest of the cast? None of them stood out as bad or particularly good. They were competent, as you expect, although, the Yamadori of Malcolm Ede was almost inaudible at times.

Now having said that, this is a stunningly pretty production. The set is a series of Japanese paper screen style walls that are raised and lowered as appropriate to reveal other people or scenery outside. There is a wooden platform in the centre which is surrounded by a shallow moat.  Besides the usual named characters and the chorus (who only appear on stage during the wedding at the start) there are 5 mute performers who are dressed like lepers (it is the obvious description when you see them), or, I guess, Butoh performers. They spend much of the opera on stage stationary,  or carrying things on stage for the performers. They are never acknowledged as existing, even as characters take props from them.

The costumes are all typically Japanese appearing, though I could not comment on how authentic they are. Most of the costumes in the opening were in shades of red. They always spoke volumes about the characters, with Butterfly changing to darker sombre colours as the performance progressed.  

So, to sum up. This was a deeply disappointing Madama Butterfly, with performers who should not have been cast in the roles they were. All I can do is leave you with a reminder of how good this production can be, with Cheryl Barker as Butterfly, and Jay Hunter Morris as her Pinkerton. If only I had seen that, not last night's cast!

And, a late edit to bring you this:

This is how you do Butterfly! Full blooded, with intense passion!!!

(And yes, the video is crap, but what a voice!)

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