An Impressive Opening Night Butterfly at the 2018 Glyndebourne Festival

20/05/2018

Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2018 [1] – Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Nicholas Jenkins), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Omer Weir Wellber (conductor). Glyndebourne Opera House, 19.5.2018. (MB)

Butterfly (Olga Busuioc) & Pinkerton (Joshua Guerrero) (c) Robbie Jack

Cast:

Pinkerton – Joshua Guerrero
Goro – Carlo Bosi
Suzuki – Elizabeth DeShong
Sharpless – Michael Sumuel
Cio-Cio-San – Olga Busuioc
Cousin – Jennifer Witton
Cio-Cio-San’s Mother – Eirlys Myfanwy Davies
Yakuside – Adam Marsden
Aunt – Shuna Scott Sendall
Imperial Commissioner – Michael Mofidian
Official Registrar – Jake Muffett
Bonze – Oleg Budurtaskiy
Prince Yamadori – Simon Mechlinski
Sorrow –Rupert Wade
Kate Pinkerton – Ida Ränzlöv

Production:

Annilese Miskimmon (director)
Nicky Shaw (set designs)
Mark Jonathan (lighting)
Kally Lloyd Jones (movement)
Ian William Galloway (video)

‘Picture it,’ as senior Golden Girl, Sophia Petrillo used to say. ‘England, 19 May 2018…’ An audience found itself enthralled by the marriage of an impressive woman to a privileged man, impeccable and dashing in his military uniform, from another nationality and ‘race’. They wished her well in this fairytale, investing their hopes, personal and communal, in the success of their union, even as some of their number risked spoiling the party by exploring a little of the history of this meeting of cultures. All the while, the mediating moneymakers – well, they made money. Would it last? Were some of them/us already gearing up to be thrilled by its potential difficulties, failures, even tragedy? From Windsor Castle, then, to the Sussex Downs did not seem too lengthy a journey – I saw signs at Clapham Junction for the former, as I found my platform for the latter – especially for a festival opening for which the not-quite-so-great-and-good-as-would-have-resulted-in-an-invitation-to-the-reception were naturally out in force.

Annilese Miskimmon’s production of Madama Butterfly, Glyndebourne’s first, has been seen previously on the 2016 tour, but this was its first appearance at the Festival proper, and my first encounter with it. It would be considered reasonably straightforward for most composers, bar the ‘updating’ – must we continue to use that dated word and idea? – to the 1950s, yet for Puccini, who perhaps suffers more than any other opera composer from a surfeit of reactionary stagings, probably marks quite an important step. It is not Calixto Bieito, nor would one expect it to be. What we see, however, portrays the drama, both a clash of cultures and expectations on anything but a level playing-field and a very personal tragedy, with unfailing intelligence and emotional commitment. I liked it – and the stage performances – very much, and responded pretty much how I ‘should’, whilst being provoked to think rather more than I often have been.

What comes across very strongly from the outset is that, whatever the exalted setting – be it a royal castle or an opera stage – and the undeniable personhood of the sacrificial victim, there is something distressingly typical about the story and the social structures that give rise to it. Cio-Cio-San is placed explicitly in a line of geishas, ‘married’ off to their respective ‘husbands’, educated onsite at the marriage bureau by the slide show, ‘How to be an American wife’, a ready source of income for the grubbily venal Goro. (He returns at the close of the first act to count his money.) A neon-lit HOTEL stands next door, for ease of consummation; or rather, the bureau stands next door to it, for ease of commerce. The overweening arrogance of Pinkerton is his personally and culturally: not just the cigarettes he smokes, but his – in context – shocking act of forcing a horrified Cio-Cio-San to toss her bouquet behind her. She does not understand, nor do the girls behind her, who dart away from it. It is cultural misunderstanding, yes, but from a man and a culture – a gender too – which, holding all the cards, have neither need nor wish to understand. Perhaps he does, a little; he too, after all, is ultimately ordinary, nothing special. (Unlike his ‘bride’, he remains that way, resolutely untransfigured, untransfigurable.) There are a few little signs of such, and, in the duet with which the first act closes, he shows her a degree of kindness, or at least of toxic masculine, Yankee concern. He is, however, a colonial tourist and overlord – and will remain so. So says the score too, of course, as Puccini subjects The Star-Spangled Banner to further exploration than one might innocently expect. In Madam Butterfly, we are all robbed of whatever innocence we may fondly delude ourselves we possessed in the first place.

The second act, tellingly, shows us an American house, set in a Japanese – or, rather stylised, orientalised ‘Japanese’ – landscape. There is no doubting Butterfly’s – sorry, Mme Pinkerton’s – belief and pride in her new situation, whatever the parlous financial situation of which Suzuki informs her. She smokes American cigarettes too now, or claims to; she proudly offers one to Sharpless, and discreetly chokes on hers. Prince Yamadori was surrounded by Americans as well as ‘natives’, when he paid her a visit: he is the compromising member of a colonial elite one would expect. Much is done with light, much is done with designs, costumes included; she is dressed as an American woman too. Until the end, that is, when to die in honour, she dresses, tragically and yet not without her hallmark pride, as the Japanese woman she has, perhaps, always known herself to be. And her son, little Sorrow, plays with a model of an American gunboat, as he waits for his father – and as his mother kills herself. Throughout, the tragedy is intensely personal and intensely imperialist.

In the title role, Olga Busuioc impressed greatly, especially during the second and third acts, when she seemed more at ease in the role. (This was, after all, an opening night.) As Alexandra Wilson writes in her programme note – and this goes for so much Puccini in general: think what we actually see and hear first-hand in La bohème! – ‘one of the particular strokes of brilliance about the opera is the way in which Puccini manages to trace the development of … [her] personality so vividly and perceptively across the span of a comparatively short opera.’ That needs performative brilliance too, which one certainly received later on, the dynamic scale of her vocal contribution not the least of her dramatic tools. Elizabeth DeShong made for a kindly yet – again – proud Suzuki. If I am rehearsing colonialist stereotypes, what else is one to do in such an opera? Perhaps the best we can hope for is to do so with a degree of critical awareness, unless, that is, we are puritanically to consign this and so many other works to the dustbin of history – and then remain with what?

Joshua Guerrero portrayed Pinkerton to a tee: his easy, false charm, his arrogance, and yet, a hint of the ambiguous, albeit quotidian devil to him too. (The pantomime booing he received was, as ever, deeply regrettable. Can we not put a stop to that, right now, please?) Carlo Bosi made us loathe the shallow evil of the aforementioned Foro, whilst Michael Sumuel did an excellent job as the duly compassionate – up to a point: repeat, up to a point – Sharpless. Indeed, every member of the cast impressed, and contributed to a greater whole; I noted, especially, Michael Mofidian’s Imperial Commissioner, Oleg Budartaskiy’s Bonze, and, as much in stage beaing as in voice – for, as one always rediscovers, she has so little to sing – Ida Ränzlöv’s Kate Pinkerton.

The London Philharmonic clearly relished playing Puccini’s score. (Which orchestra would not?) String sheen and more general tonal allure were not purchased at the expense of incisive drama: quite the contrary. I could not help but wish that it had been given its head a little more often by Omer Meir Wellber, but perhaps that was his point. If he did not always communicate the quasi-symphonic form of the musical work as strongly as he might have done, with a consequent lack of dramatic impetus at times, for the most part Wellber showed himself a good accompanist, more often than not alert to the ebb and flow, often a little reticent and sometimes even sluggish. In Puccini, just as in Wagner and Strauss, the relationship between orchestra and singers is not, or should not be, a zero-sum game: attention paid to the one should heighten our attention to the other. More of that will probably come, though, as the run progresses. This remained, by any standards, an impressive opening night for the 2018 Glyndebourne Festival. For those, moreover, who cared to think, it may have had a good deal still to tell us about our own hopes and fears, about our own prejudices and our struggles, however vain, to surmount them. As Carl Dahlhaus once observed, ‘it is precisely in order to radicalise conflicts — so that ‘resolutions’ are ruled out — that dramas are written; if not, they would be treatises.’

Mark Berry

For a later second review click here.

For more about Glyndebourne Festival Opera click here.

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