The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

HGO: Puccini Madama Butterfly: Sterling vocal acting by Martinez and Calleja engulfed in elephantosis of new Michael Grandage production - 02.11.10

Eager anticipation had to have greeted a new production, initially pleasing to the eye, of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – marking important role debut by Ana Maria Martinez and HGO debut of celebrated Maltese tenor Josef Calleja. One then waited however for much of this production to come to some semblance of life, but all in vain.

Cio-Cio-San is probably the most dramatic assignment Ana Maria Martinez has assumed here thus far. If one may have detected some shallowness of tonal depth or focus, Martinez made up for any such lapse by delegating her resources prudently and making much detailed expressive shape of most of the text to first especially reveal a certain apprehension Cio-Cio-San perhaps only feels subconsciously early on. Martinez avoided understating completely away the youth of Cio-Cio-San in the earliest scenes of the opera, but also revealed, should early on Cio-Cio-San have any clue as how to realistically assess what is at hand, a certain feigning of inculcating in full what her new situation might be.

Martinez pointed all color and nuance to making full sense of the text, including her well learned deference to Pinkerton, distancing of her past and expression of strained comprehension of what it has meant to visit the Christian mission for a first time. Puccini has indicated harmonically the mysterious sensation that Cio-Cio-San feels – then for line to open out as it does that Martinez caressed freely, suavely. Martinez’s measured feeling and fraught tone for Cio-Cio-San’s sudden weighing out of options at crux of the scene with Sharpless, followed by protest of equally reckoned vulnerability was very affecting. Cio-Cio-San’s overwhelmed wonder and quick assumption of pride at spotting return of the Lincoln was equally so – ironically preparing for Martinez’s quite fully making her own the desperate and very sad final scene to this tragedy. Legato line was always suave, charm, and blend with a basically dependable comprimario level Suzuki from Lucy Schaufer for their duet toward end of Act Two with the cherry blossoms all made itself well felt. Martinez sang ‘Un bel di’ with intimately, modestly shaped line and fine dovetailed expressivity, then febrile ardor for its affirmative closing lines.

Josef Calleja, looking consistently slightly stiff on the Wortham stage, confidently sang B.F. Pinkerton with ringing ardor and some implied haughtiness, both qualities showing what makes the young lieutenant click. Attempt at absorbing, so much all Japanese in his midst looked rightly uncomprehending, deep down, glib – at some strain at disguising this being so. Through fine vocal acting, much more than anything else, a gnawing doubt rightfully developed, mixed in with Puccini’s subtleties, of – without my letting Pinkerton off– with what gap in ability to communicate effectively between the newly betrothed couple One had to be provoked by first moment Calleja started to sing on stage, as to how it ever could have been possible for a more beautiful tone out of a tenor to have been be heard from stage at the Wortham. One might have to go back a little ways.

Strongest among supporting cast were Rodell Rosel as cleanly sung, straightforwardly conniving marriage broker Goro, resolute Commisioner of Tommy George. and most of all the age wise, prudent Sharpless of Levi Hernandez, with slightly dry but ample vocal resources to sing this well. Robert Pomakov, as the Bonze, looked and sounded mildly threatened by the situation, tremulously so – more than he sounded like any menace as a Bonze.. Boris Dyakov appeared deftly as the lovesick, obsequious Yamadori, to lightly playful, scornful Cio-Cio-San of Martinez.. Rachel Sorensen looked planted onto the vast stage as perhaps statue of Pinkerton’s new wife - all that was memorable about her appearing on stage, Martinez, the distraught Cio-Cio-San vulnerably, consolably with warm tone addressed her as who must be the happiest woman alive – if only one cold have made Kate Pinkerton appear at all alive. Secondarily, she looked to be in plain view a good several pages before Cio-Cio-San should know of her presence. Perhaps this Kate Pinkerton got imported from the Robert Wilson production.

If only after describing especially the two near-definitive leads to have graced the Wortham for this, there were any more good news about this production of Puccini’s ‘Japanese tragedy’, except that for the most part there was not. A widely curvy walkway draped over broadly spread out ascending steps, against fine scenic backdrop – all as though we should perhaps be sitting in awe of a multiple hundreds of times blown up postcard. Lighting (Neil Austin) shifted for different hues both for the curvy walkway, stylized representation of the hill up to the house it was, and the backdrop. Otherwise, the highly diffuse, even fluorescent appearing lighting was harsh, looked college glee club amateurish. Shift of stage light at end of prelude to Act Three from gray dawn to high noon occurred in only a matter of several seconds.

On a very expansively laid out stage, the house for Cio-Cio-San was relegated to being a couple of screens to far left front of the stage. Elephantosis at achieving grandeur with stage picture overall was far more the priority here than the house, or mere vague intimation thereof, which Michael Grandage announced in the program notes, is just there to serve its purpose and then - lest anything too specifically indigenous might become the least bit overbearing - to get out of the way. Apparently there were more important considerations to be reckoned – but without Grandage making it clear what they might be. The decoration of modest choreographic steps from especially bridesmaid entourage and relatives and deft bowing to each other was all fine and well. In order to make a little borrowed metaphor of the situation, to admire that is practically in effect to be fawning over dormers and lintels left out on ground visibly close to the sidewalk – in front of a fine edifice that has just recently crumbled to the ground.

Liner notes making exposed just about all the modus operandi behind this Madama Butterfly, it is surprising that any life emerged out of this onstage at all. What might have inspired especially Martinez and Calleja to give of nearly their best and achieve the good vocal acting that they did? Martinez generously offered more than just that. It might have meant risk of losing some reckoned sight of them altogether. Martinez and the boy then get put on a cupola attached to a large rotating wheel containing much of the set - then making creaking noises during Humming Chorus and/or prelude to Act Three.

What silences occur in Puccini’s score got halfway smoothed over first by Patrick Summers, then by all the monolithic to quasi-phallic vastness of scale. Butterfly’s final scene, allowing for more elaborate acting by Martinez, had her suicide take the hit of happening over along ascending walkway stage right, for Pinkerton to respond in full view of the dying woman by running in, sliding to his knees down several steps halfway toward her, as though to gesture some respect. Did Grandage want to console us that Pinkerton, on naturalistic terms, is innocent for what has happened? If so, then clumsily the entire notion fell flat. Moreover, as opposed to what the program notes might have had one believe, the chord Puccini, hurls out, responding to cries from Pinkerton, provides the conclusion absolutely no sense of resolution. It is unique this way.

Spreading out of confetti over the walkway also looked silly. Things going on about the house, looked so minimal, as said above, as to be practically insignificant. Other than what ritual of making polite gestures does for Grandage what is still more essential to the social culture and system of Japan, other than to give it some nice window dressing, got missed. For that matter, the whole drama, rationale for it, looked almost completely pointless – to point for one to cry out for return here of the consulate office design for set Francesca Zambello installed here for Butterfly two previous times.

One patron told me of his preferring the new production over the Ken Russell that visited here in 1985, that just for sensitivity to the music’s demands, was, conducted by Lawrence Foster, orgy of excitement compared with this. Oh, the spreading out of corn flakes around the house in place of cherry blossoms toward end of Act Two was a bit vulgar; at least the geisha’s house was front and center throughout – as opposed to, hypothetically, being compartmentalized into small corner box. On top among two stories - traditional action carried out below - you had early on several geishas moving one sleeping client across over to bed not in use to free up accommodations for next client.

Harmonizing well with the utterly, seemingly codified blandness of this Butterfly was the equally glib conducting of Patrick Summers. The asperity of Puccini’s scoring, essential part of its color scheme even while getting smoothed away to being halfway insignificant, became here altogether insignificant. Summers clipped his way in flaccid manner through the opening fugato. Though accompanying singers reasonably well for handful of bigger set pieces, such a streamlined approach demeaned Puccini’s score to little more than an accompanying soundtrack to the action; things, though slightly late in the day, emerged better full out during final scene. Humming Chorus was deftly pointed, for sure, but opening prelude to Act Three ultimately sounded more streamlined than evocative. The Bonze scene, halfway well provided for onstage, got smoothed out from the pit through dovetailing, gilding it slightly much toward end of its brief life, as got halfway smoothed out stinging accents for confrontation Goro provokes during Act Two.

Most annoying - in context of what got presented as in essence a two-act Madama Butterfly - no break after Act Two started - was inclusion of ‘Addio, fiorito asil.’ Not to be content with just including it, Summers gilded to death the accompaniment, as though Calleja might need any props – and with house to which he bids farewell hardly visible anyway. Moreover at heart of the matter the inclusion of this melodious number in a two-act Butterfly is musically, psychologically, philologically careless and incorrect.

It was also patronizing to the history of the company, that when Houston Grand Opera did present the 1904 version in 1985 – of course in two acts, the ‘Addio, fiorito asil’ got dropped (as could have been sung by nearly as superb Richard Leech). In its place got reinstated a couple of places – line or two to make Pinkerton seem more obvious the cad than the 1906 version without these lines does. Most affecting of all were several lines of plain arioso by Cio-Cio-San right before child enters for ‘Tu, tu picciolo Iddio.’ Moreover, Puccini’s very individual through-composed vastness of scale had on that occasion its full, unencumbered say.

At the end of the day, I found it extra patronizing to treat a drama, Latinized enough as it is, and though little of its source authentically Japanese, the way it got treated here - as so much window-dressing. Such seems so backward within involving the Far East and important enough social themes, including lack of ability for West and East to come to grips with each other with people over there mostly suffering the brunt during time the action of this takes place. The entire thing looked so uninspired as to have possibly been a traveling road show for this opera. Should Michael Grandage be so cowed by facing a piece of work that is more elaborate or involved, musically, aesthetically, psychologically than what has been his norm thus far, then perhaps he has extended his reach too far.

Presenting Madama Butterfly in such a stylized perspective did not accomplish anything. It is seldom everything an evening at the Wortham has looked so disengaged – all as though there being a corporatist overweening Nurse Ratched to oversee proceedings to prevent unduly disturbing the properly seated inmates.

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