Puccini, Madama Butterfly

I’ve seen some awful stagings of operas over the years, but I do not remember the last time I was left as speechless as I was tonight at the Volksoper at the end of something pretending to be Puccini’Madama Butterfly.  Most bad stagings are just obviously bad right from the beginning.  This one came as more of a shock since this was not Regietheater.  It was not even particularly modern.  The photos of the production made it look reasonable.  For most of the opera, I just assumed the director did not understand the plot – it was a bad interpretation, with some very questionable elements on stage, but not atrocious.  However, then he completely changed the ending and it crossed every conceivable level of comprehension.

If anyone reading this ever has the chance to see a production staged by Norwegian director Stefan Herheim, shoot yourself first.

As I said, the production started out looking OK, as a period piece set in 1904 Nagasaki.  But the first sign that something was wrong was that the Japanese characters all wore westernized dress.  This remained so throughout the opera, with only Butterfly and Suzuki dressed in anything remotely Japanese.  Considering that this opera relates misunderstandings between cultures, placing Butterfly in the company of westernized Japanese removed that tension and the whole underlying context of the opera.

The next obvious interpretive problem was an extra character on stage.  Some Westerner (not Japanese) in a brown period suit was clearly meant to be obvious.  This man appeared in every scene, if not watching intently and scribbling notes to himself, then directly interacting with the other characters.  Pinkerton offered the whiskey to him (not to Sharpless).  Butterfly addressed her thoughts not to herself or even to Suzuki but instead to him.  Goro was shadowed in his work by this stranger.  And, amazingly, this character even took part in the love scene between Butterfly and Pinkerton.  In the Second Act, his identity finally became known: he was Yamadori, the wealthy Japanese suitor she rejects.  Clearly, this Yamadori had become so westernized as to become a white man.  And, by the way he was behaving, he was less mysterious and more a somewhat nasty stalker.  More on him later, unfortunately.

The third interpretive problem which appeared early on was the portrayal of Sharpless, the US Consul in Nagasaki, who came across as a befuddled clown.  Of course, in this opera as Puccini wrote it, Sharpless was the only one who saw the potential tragedy in this clash of cultures, and tried his best to convince everyone else that the whole affair would end badly.  But in this version, no one would listen to a fool, and his message was lost.

The opera continued along these lines until the second half of the second act (they staged the original version of the opera, which was not much different from the final version, but the material that would become Acts 2 and 3 was combined into a single act – indeed, I think the two act version works better dramatically).  During this final part of the opera, roughly corresponding to the third act of the revised version, Yamadori had thankfully stopped stalking Butterfly.  Pinkerton arrived not just with Kate and Sharpless, but also with a boatload of American tourists in modern dress, who started wandering around the set like it was a museum.  Indeed, banners showing old theater posters of Madama Butterfly and of Puccini adorned the stage, and many of the props from previous scenes now appeared inside display cases.  The tourists did not leave as the action tried to progress, but were obviously paying close attention (while examining Butterfly’s Japanese house).

All of this nonsense would have remained just nonsense.  However, nothing prepared me for the new ending.

Just as Butterfly was about to commit suicide (seemingly by slitting her throat), the American tourists rushed over to disarm and save her.  A happy ending perhaps?  What to do about Kate?  This dilemma was quickly resolved.

In the real plot, Pinkerton and Sharpless arrive too late – Butterfly has already committed suicide and the opera ends with Pinkerton calling out her name.  Not tonight.

Tonight, Pinkerton, Sharpless, and Kate re-joined the crowd of tourists as they disarmed and restrained Butterfly.  Yamadori then made an unexpected return right at this moment, and the shouts of “Butterfly!  Butterfly!” which Pinkerton was supposed to sing were instead transposed to this Yamadori character, who pointed at her menacingly.  And then, on a further hand-signal order from Yamadori, the American tourists took their turns stabbing Butterfly to death in a brutal murder and to Yamadori’s obvious delight.

Needless to say, this left the audience gasping in shock.  No one applauded.  Some boos rang out.  Then as the cast began to take its curtain calls in silence, I think most people realized that this travesty was not the cast’s fault, and the cast started to get polite applause (which swelled when Butterfly took her bow).  The applause ended immediately after the conductor motioned to the orchestra, and everyone just walked out as quickly as they could.

Melba Ramos, as Butterfly, had a pleasant voice which carried off her emotions.  Morten Frank Larsen, as Sharpless (and Jochanaan in Salome two weeks ago), had a dramatic voice, which somehow carried him through the absurd portrayal of Sharpless that director Herheim set out.  Adrineh Simonian as Suzuki was fine.  Jenk Bieck as Pinkerton was less so, but he clearly had a cold and was coughing throughout the performance.  Tetsuro Ban created nice orchestral tones in the pit – the orchestra deserved its applause.

Now, as for Herheim…

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