Puccini, Madama Butterfly
The Stanislavsky Opera decided to showcase some of its new young talent in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly tonight. In Moscow, there seems to be no shortage of good young talent, so that was the evening’s entertainment.
The problem tonight was not the cast, however, but a conductor who must have been on drugs. Vyacheslav Volich started out the overture at such a high speed that the orchestra could not keep up with him, making the start of the opera sound like a damaged CD that kept skipping all over the place. And somehow they did this at high volume, which made life very difficult for the singers. During the course of the first act, Volich slowed down, got things together (the orchestra actually sounded good, once they could follow the music), and modulated the volume, and we could begin to hear the singers properly by the final duet of the First Act. Once we could hear them, the singers across the board sounded fully adequate. Irina Vashchenko as Butterfly turned out to be a real treat, with a warm full voice and secure stage presence.
The staging was typical Stanislavsky minimal, with a few objects meant to suggest Japan (including Butterfly’s house, bizarrely shaped somewhat like Mount Fuji). The director seemed to want to make up for the lack of scenery by overcompensating with the costumes, but these came off in part Chinese and in part silly. She would have been better off keeping the costumes simple.
Two of her touches might have worked, if she had followed through properly. The first was to have Butterfly become Americanized in both dress and movement in Act Two – including sitting in a Western-style chair (reverting in Act Three after she realizes Pinkerton has betrayed her). But the whole tragedy here is that Butterfly never actually crosses over into Pinkerton’s world.
The other alternative touch came at the very end. Butterfly stabbed herself not in the traditional Japanese way but instead by thrusting the knife downwards into her chest while standing. The director had her drop the knife, but not collapse immediately. This set up a dramatic ending, in which she would collapse dead just as Pinkerton came on stage, which would have made for a nice interpretive twist. However, that is not what happened. Pinkerton never arrived on stage, and she never collapsed dead. Instead, the small boat she had climbed onto in order to commit suicide (an odd prop that had appeared in all three acts), gradually drifted across the stage, as Butterfly extended her arms. So instead of having a nice interpretive twist, we got instead a heavily confused ending. Close curtain.