This Aix-en-Provence production quietly, powerfully rethought and reimagined Madama Butterfly

FranceFrance Festival d’Aix-en-Provence [1] – Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Lyon Opera Chorus (chorus master: Benedict Kearns), Lyon Opera Orchestra / Daniele Rustoni (conductor). Théâtre de l’Archeveché, Aix-en-Provence, 8.7.2024. (MB)

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2024: Madama Butterfly © Ruth Walz

Director – Andrea Breth
Set designs – Raimund Orfeo Voigt
Costumes – Ursula Renzenbrink
Lighting – Alexander Koppelmaan
Dramaturgy – Klaus Bertisch

Cio-Cio San – Ermonela Jaho
B.F. Pinkerton – Adam Smith
Suzuki – Mihoko Fujimura
Sharpless – Lionel Lhote
Goro – Carlo Bosi
The Bonze – Inho Jeong
Prince Yamadori – Kristofer Lundin
Kate Pinkerton – Albane Carrère
Imperial Commissioner – Kristján Jóhannnesson

Madama Butterfly has become a difficult opera to stage, largely on account of its deeply problematical subject matter, but also its dramatic straightforwardness. Does one just ignore the former insofar as possible, perhaps toning down what might have been acceptable to some a couple of decades ago yet would no longer be considered to be; or does one address some of its issues head on and, at least for some, risk it buckling under the weight of a critical apparatus it will struggle to support onstage? Its orientalism (or worse) will not go away, so one is going to have to take a view whether one likes it or not; likewise, the cruelty inextricably linked with the sympathy it voices and evokes. And assuming one is not going to take the line that there is nothing wrong with Pinkerton’s actions or indeed American imperialism, is there really much to interpret, as opposed to draw out?

Andrea Breth appears to think not — or at least declines to do so. She does not attempt any grand re-evaluation of the opera, but she does heighten its nastiness and, ultimately, the power of its tragedy. Breth does not impose a concept, good, bad, or indifferent, upon the work, but has clearly thought both about its problems and the drama that lies in its detail and presents them with clarity and integrity. Where the opening scene can often seem a mere prelude, albeit a necessary one, here we are confronted with the horror of what is there from the start: the racism, imperialism, and misogyny of Pinkerton abundantly clear in his dismissive treatment of Suzuki. She barely registers as a human being as he takes off his shoes. Save for her, it is also, prior to Cio-Cio San’s arrival, an entirely (heterosexual) male environment — and it feels like it. Whatever it is – ‘love’ hardly seems the word – that Pinkerton feels for his bride, its roots are in this context. Suzuki, moreover, knows precisely what is going on and tells us so, long before she says a word; Breth’s direction and Mihoko Fujimura’s acting are as one.

Moreover, Breth does not attempt to ‘understand’ Japanese culture. In the programme, she freely admits that she does not and cannot, in contrast with Puccini’s then typical yet, for us, deeply problematical acts of appropriation. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, even to talk about this without orientalising, but perception, both its truths and its lies, stands at the heart of a tale concerned with mutual incomprehension as well as deeply stacked scales. Faded designs suggest something retrospective, a refusal to resort to ‘colourful’ caricature, or both; so does lighting that appears more dialectical than crudely binary in its portrayal of lightness and darkness. Masked actors play Butterfly’s family, whilst their voices come from singers, almost unseen, in the dark surrounding the stage. Moreover, the pace of their ‘action’, if one can call that it at all, is quite different from Puccini’s. To our eyes – and ears – they slow it down, but perhaps therein lies some sort of resistance as well as difference. And of course, in most respects, they are right. Breth makes much, though anything but crudely, of Kate Pinkerton’s arrival and act of child-possession, sealing the cruel tragedy, whilst Butterfly’s suicide is horrible, as it must be, though in no sense gratuitously so. Actors and singers, after all, play characters; they do not (straightforwardly) become them, at least from a Brechtian standpoint. Indeed, the relationship between realism and other possibilities might be said to lie at the heart of the production, as perhaps of the work and how we might now approach it.

Daniele Rustoni’s conducting of a fine cast and Lyon Opera forces combined interestingly with Breth’s staging. I am sure it would be distorting to say that one determined the other, but one certainly had the impression of interplay. Rustoni’s similar attention to detail contributed to, rather than detracting from, a greater sense of the whole. His tempi, especially in the first act, I was less sure about; that act in particular came to seem increasingly drawn out. Yet, considered as a whole, that seemed very much in keeping with the (masked) disinclination to rush, and paid off handsomely in the second and third acts, where ghosts of Tristan und Isolde in particular enlightened and discomfited. The erotics of this performance could be experienced both immediately and at a sophisticated level of mediation, as with its other qualities.

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2024: Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San © Ruth Walz

That certainly included singing. In the beginning, I felt slightly troubled by an apparent lack of dramatic verisimilitude concerning the two central characters, struggling to achieve necessary suspension of belief given a work aesthetic that seems, though perhaps only seems, to insist on realism. There were times, moreover, when the tessitura of Butterfly’s role seemed to strain Ermonela Jaho. As the opera progressed, and as Jaho’s dramatic commitment, bordering on possession, took over, she moved in a special way that heightened a sense of both problems and opportunities in the work ‘itself’, her final scene as true and necessary a climax as one could hope for. Smith’s thankless role was more ‘straightforwardly’ convincing, as doubtless it should be. He did not flinch from having us loathe him, balancing the tricky imperatives of shallowness in character and thoughtfulness of portrayal. Fujimura’s self-revelation was deeply impressive throughout, whilst Lionel Lhote (doubtless with Breth’s help) presented a compassionate, understanding, subtly memorable Sharpless. With smaller roles all well taken, there was a strong sense of unity in greater dramatic service. Almost in spite of itself, yet also on its own account, this Aix production quietly, powerfully rethought and reimagined Puccini’s opera.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment