Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Madama Butterfly

Vancouver Opera's big season-closing production is Puccini's Madama Butterfly, easily one of the world's top three favorites. Maybe because it is so overdone, the company decided to give it a difference, at least visually.
Musically it's very strong and the voices are good, though I didn't really care for soprano Mihoko Kinoshita's Cio-Cio-San, who never moved me; I much preferred Zheng Cao's Suzuki.
This is a very stark Butterfly, you could say almost an ungraceful one. The production designers have gone very Japanese on this conception but it's not a Japan from the turn of the century, it looks more like a set for Wagner as conceived by the Bauhaus school. A high rake to the stage, huge concentric circles, flat colored parasol-like discs carried by the geishas, a long slanting pathway, and screens, screens, screens with projections, projections, projections and five or six black-clad, square-headed bunraku figures to manipulate them "invisibly."
It looks very beautiful in a clinical way, and that's the problem. When was Madama Butterfly ever clinical? The production has erased every bit of charm from this great opera and left it a cold, beautiful thing. That was felt most significantly in the first act love duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton. There's so much going on in this overproduced "minimal" extravaganza that I hardly felt touched by the music at all.
Jun Kaneko, the designer of the sets, the videos and the unattractive costumes, is said not to have worked in opera before and, as preparation, to have listened to Madama Butterfly three times a day. Why would you need to?

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