Sonya Yoncheva’s commanding performance in a venerable Madama Butterfly at Berlin’s Staatsoper

GermanyGermany Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Staatsopernchor Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin / Domingo Hindoyan (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 14.2.2024. (MB)

Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s Madama Butterfly (1991 premiere) © Gianmarco Bresadola

Director – Eike Gramss
Revival director – Marcin Łakomicki
Designs – Peter Sykora
Lighting – Irene Selka
Chorus director – Gerhard Polifka

Cio-Cio-San – Sonya Yoncheva
Suzuki – Natalia Skrycka
Kate Pinkerton – Rebecka Wallroth
Pinkerton – Stefan Pop
Sharpless – Carles Pachon
Goro – Gonzalo Quinchahual
Prince Yamadori – Taehan Kim
Uncle Bonze – Grigory Shkarupa
Commissioner – Dionysios Avgerinos
Cio-Cio-San’s Mother – Verena Allertz
Aunt – Michèle Cusson
Uncle – Insoo Hwoang
Child – Carl Beyme

Happy St Valentine’s Day! Ash Wednesday and an opera about sex tourism. Whatever we might think about the latter two, many will agree that the coincidence is well deserved by the pseudo-feast of heart-shaped balloons and ‘special menus’ at three times the price, a third of the culinary quality. In retrospect, or rather more or less as soon as I had arrived, I could not help but think it was perhaps not the wisest of evenings to have chosen to see a Puccini opera; some fellow audience members seemed more concerned to chat, consult their telephones, and more rather than to devote attention to what might reasonably be considered the main attraction in an opera house. More broadly, though, an opera house’s life and health extend beyond the glamour and excitement of premieres. For that reason and for their own sake, I try to sample older stagings I have not seen too and have made that a particular effort to explore these, both in opera and spoken theatre, for this spell in Berlin.

Here, then is Staatsoper’s Madama Butterfly, in Eike Gramss’s production, first seen at the end of April 1991, when it was conducted by Fabio Luisi, with Miriam Gauci in the title role. Fashions change, of course, often rapidly so — and that certainly applies to opera staging. To see something hailing from less than two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall is to step back some time indeed (not helped by the realisation we reached the point some years hence that the post-Wall era had lasted longer than ever the Wall stood). German reunification and full sovereignty were little more than a month old. One of that process’s sternest and most hapless foes, Margaret Thatcher, had recently been replaced as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The first Iraq War had still more recently concluded. And closer to home in newly reunified Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, fresh and doubtless a little sore from his atrocious treatment at Paris’s new opera house in the Place de la Bastille had yet to be appointed music director at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden; that would come at the end of the year.

Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s Madama Butterfly (1991 premiere) © Gianmarco Bresadola

I wondered initially, then, whether the safety curtain picturing a US sailor and other images, an eagle included, of Yankee imperialism had been initially intended to have more precise reference thirty-three years ago. Perhaps they had, although the theme is, as they say, ongoing, the opera itself bearing witness to that. I think that image may also, or primarily, have borne witness to a more existential conception, which I suspect will have come across more strongly earlier on, before the staging settled into a comfortable, perhaps necessary, repertoire life. There is a sense that Cio-Cio-San is perhaps delusional – obviously, on a very important level, she is – and certainly looking for escape. She does none of the things that would have helped her, in a difficult, disgraced position, owing to her father’s hara-kiri, to lead a better life; indeed, obstinately she rules them out. And this, I think, we can still see here; her movements suggest a refusal to confront her existing society, and an obstinate turn towards a fantasy of someone who will come to rescue her. (Wagnerian precedents in particular came to my mind.)

In a notably unsympathetic portrayal of Pinkerton, there was perhaps just a chink of light suggesting that he too might have bought into ‘white saviour’ mode, as opposed to acting with pure cynicism. In many ways, that simply rephrases questions, but is probably worth bearing in mind. Otherwise, the action proceeds more or less as one would expect — and still perhaps might see from a smaller company, albeit probably with greater racial awareness. On the latter score, I think – and I know it is easy for me, as a white man to say this – one can be somewhat forgiving. There is nothing especially outrageous here, and doubtless all concerned would take a different approach from the outset today. Moreover, one can always read things more than one way: the dangerously orientalising portrayal of Japanese women fanning in concert can now be taken, if not intended, as a critique of such portrayals or at least a warning. We are free to have our own thoughts and should surely pursue them.

Sonya Yoncheva gave a commanding performance as Cio-Cio-San. It offered a wealth of dynamic and other contrast, expertly shaded. There is, as ever, the problem as to how convincing, in a highly realist setting, someone can be as a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl. It is not clear to me what we do about that, other than abandon realism (which is clearly a question for another day), and that is not her fault. Natalia Skrycka’s Suzuki offered deep compassion and a high degree of on-stage chemistry. Stefan Pop certainly has the vocal reserves for Pinkerton, yet I could not help but find his portrayal a little generalised: of thirty-odd years ago in a way that was not entirely beneficial. Maybe that was brought about by the venerable production, but I missed something more variegated. Carles Pachon’s Sharpless, though, had me wishing he had more to sing — and act. This was a creditably – and credibly – detailed performance, asking questions as much as answering them.

The rest of the cast, chorus included, impressed, as did the Staatskapelle Berlin: the first time, I think, I have heard this orchestra in Puccini. If I am not sure Domingo Hindoyan always had the pacing quite right – the evening did sometimes seem to drag – then this is also in part a matter of taste and is related in complex ways to what one sees, and does not, on stage too. His approach was more Italianate than post-Wagnerian; something at least a little more symphonic might have helped bind the action together more strongly. By the same token, though, there was little doubt the score was unfolding as he envisaged it, and he certainly knew how to whip up a head of steam at climactic moments. It may well be time, so far as some of us are concerned, to replace this production, but audience reaction was enthusiastic in the extreme.

Mark Berry

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