Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly
La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2017
Roberto Rizzi-Brignoli, Kirsten Dehlholm, Alexia Voulgaridou, Ning Liang, Marta Beretta, Marcelo Puente, Riccardo Botta, Aris Argiris, Aldo Heo, Mikhail Kolelishvili, Wiard Witholt, René Laryea, Rosa Brandao, Birgitte Bønding, Adrienne Visser
Opera Platform - February 2017
If Kirsten Dehlholm of the Danish art collective Hotel Pro Forma succeeds in one area where productions of Madama Butterfly often fail, it's in the manner of how to make a considerably older soprano convincingly pass for a 15 year old geisha. The La Monnaie production uses a life-sized puppet stand-in with two handlers for the main role, while it is sung at the side of the stage by Alexia Voulgaridou. Voulgaridou has of course sang the role convincingly enough before in many conventionally staged performances, but Dehlholm has other intentions for her role and the production as a whole. Some of those ideas have merit, but whether they actually work in the context of performance to do justice to Puccini's masterpiece is another matter.
The use of a puppet doll for Madama Butterfly has an authenticity and justification in that it is derived from the Japanese theatre tradition of Bunraku. It does helps envision Cio-Cio-San as a mere child, with an advantage that the skilled handlers are able to give a more authentic emphasis on mannerisms and gestures that might not otherwise be there with the same lightness and delicacy with an older woman playing the role. The use of a puppet also gives rise to other impressions that might seem appropriate in the context, viewing Butterfly as little more than a plaything of others with no real volition of her own.
The downside to this however is that, whether intentional or not, the impression it gives is fairly limited in terms of characterisation and lacks nuance. Butterfly is far from a passive puppet; she is determined and knows her own mind, even if she is often mistaken or misled in her belief that her marriage to American sailor Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is anything other than a sham or a marriage for his convenience. To perhaps try and find other ways of giving expression to the real content and meaning of the work, the director has some other ideas, but most of them are fairly abstract and difficult to decode.
Aside from the Bunraku marionettes, the production tries to make a claim for a Nôh theatre influence, but it's far from authentic and mixed in with an indeterminate approach that makes it neither one thing nor another. The setting is not period specific. Pinkerton wears a generic military-style uniform, while the Japanese characters wear kimonos and obis. The set is mostly bare, there are no walls and only really a Japanese temple style roof hanging over the stage. Screens and projections present a mixture of abstract images and - bizarrely - a modern cruise ship for Pinkerton's return. Dancers in eccentrically designed origami folded costumes appear now and again and for some unfathomable reason, it looks like stage hands appear at the side of the stage for 'Un bel di vedremo'.
It's all a bit cool and detached from the real emotion that lies at the heart of the work. That can be a viable approach to Madama Butterfly to counteract the overheated drama (Robert Wilson's production is no less effective for it), but alongside the puppet/singer division, it creates too much distance between the story and the telling, even though Alexia Voulgaridou is far from dispassionate in her performance and not entirely disengaged from the drama. Wearing a white wig and an identical costume to the marionette, you might think she is an elderly version of Madama Butterfly reflecting on past mistakes, were it not for the fact that Cio-Cio-San doesn't live past the age of 18 (sorry for the spoiler). In reality, it's just another (misguided and mishandled) attempt to bring Japanese folklore into the production in the form of the traditional ghost story.
Not unlike the director's striking work for La Monnaie on Rachmaninoff's Troika, the production seems to arbitrarily place emphasis on light, colour and patterns as if it is enough to get across the deeper themes of the opera that have been left out of the traditional stage production. It can be refreshing to see something different attempted like this and there's no question it's a colourful and attractive production, but in the effort to be original you get the impression that the production team is more often missing the point, or worse - such as in the appearance of an oversized toy representing the child and the flock of birds that fall to the stage when the cannon fires to announce the arrival of Pinkerton's ship in Nagasaki - don't seem to be taking it terribly seriously at all.
Whether they are taking it seriously or not, it seems fairly certain that at least in how it presents Puccini's score, the production utterly fails to hit its musical and emotional high points. The singing is merely adequate, Voulgaridou trying to put a little more feeling into the proceedings but sounding sometimes a little over-stretched. Marcelo Puente's singing is fine but he fails to make an impression one way or the other in respect of how we feel about Pinkerton and his treatment of his Japanese child bride. Ning Liang is not a strong Suzuki, Riccardo Botta's Goro and Aris Argiris' Sharpless are rote and largely ineffectual. The orchestra under Roberto Rizzi-Brignoli sounds a little reduced and don't quite convey the Romantic sweep of the work, but other colours are brought out and there is impact where you would expect to find it.
Unfortunately none of this impact makes even the smallest dent on the dispassionately impervious production. It's perhaps not always necessary to fully embrace Puccini's melodrama, but if you are going to undermine the emotional delivery and tragic consequences of the final scenes, it would help if you had an alternative message or some surprise revelation to pull out in its place. The only surprise here is that you really couldn't care less at the conclusion, which is admittedly an incredible achievement for any Madama Butterfly. On the other hand, judging from the enthusiastic response of the audience perhaps this worked better in the theatre than it did on the screen, but as far as the live streaming is concerned this Madama Butterfly died in more ways than one.