Produced by Eternity Opera
Friday 16 November 2018, Hannah Playhouse, Wellington
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica
English translation by Ruth & Thomas Martin
Director: Alex Galvin
Music Director: Matthew Ross
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
Butterfly… Hannah Catrin Jones
Pinkerton… Boyd Owen
Sharpless… Kieran Rayner
Suzuki… Laura Loach
Goro… Declan Cudd
The Bonze… Roger Wilson
The Imperial Commissioner… Minto Fung
Kate Pinkerton… Jess Segal
The Registrar… Chris Berentson
Yakuside… Garth Norman
Mother… Ruth Armishaw
Aunt… Sally Haywood
Cousin… Tania Dreaver
Bridesmaids… Beatrix Poblacion & Milla Dickens
and the Eternity Chamber Orchestra
Reduced orchestration by Jonathan Lyness¹
Producer: Emma Beale & Minto Fung
Production Designer: Jennifer Eccles
Costumes Designer: Sally Gray
Eternity Opera Company
tldr: the short story
Eternity Opera’s production was first rate – professional, accomplished and earnest.
The cast and orchestra were excellent and four leads were exceptional.
It deserved its standing ovation.
The long story:
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas in the world, ranking in the top ten productions worldwide.² Eternity Opera Company made the decision to stage the opera in English [so the title was correctly translated as ‘Madam’ not ‘Madama’]. I understand the choice, and it was a relief to not look at surtitles, but it was distracting to hear the translation for some phrases. In the tradition of verismo opera it is about love, passion, betrayal, death and, uncomfortably in this day and age, racism. More about this later, but the crux of the matter is Puccini’s music and this Eternity’s production was first rate – professional, accomplished and earnest.
The four leads – Hannah Catrin Jones as Cio-Cio-San, Boyd Owen as Pinkerton, Kieran Rayner as Sharpless, and Laura Loach as Suzuki – were exceptional. Boyd and Kieran brought the benefit of overseas experience to their singing and acting. Their voices were mature and full-bodied and ensemble work was outstanding. Their characters were absolutely believable: Pinkerton as the impetuous, sanguine and chauvinistic opportunist and Sharpless as the cautious, disconsolate [no pun intended] but wimpy confidant. Laura was a complete complement to Cio-Cio-San – as she should be as a maidservant! Her singing, particularly in the Act III, was rich and resonant.
But the night belonged to Hannah Catrin Jones. Cio-Cio-San was onstage, singing, 80% of the time – an enormous role. Hannah’s voice was exceptional – pure, vibrant, heartfelt but absolutely covered and controlled [I mean that in the sense of vocal health.] Her top notes were incandescent. Her bottom register – when she realised her husband had abandoned her and when she realised her suicidal fate – was chilling and desolate. Her duet as the finale of Act I and her ‘Un bel di‘ in Act II were a highlight of the evening. A stunning performance.
The 15-players in the orchestra, conducted by Matthew Ross, were excellent – particularly the bassoon, horn and the amazing subtlety of the percussionist – not usually in the job description! Some of the strings had some intonation variations but it was remarkable to have the ‘Puccini sound’ with so few players. Unfortunately, when the ecstatic mood took over, they could overwhelm the singers. With no orchestra pit it is difficult to assess and hard to gauge the right balance. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Puccini wanted to orchestra to overpower the vocalists.
The four leads coped with that – their voices were strong. Given the timbre of the voices, Boyd and Kieran’s enunciation was spot-on – every word was understandable. The treble registers from Laura and Hannah was not so comprehensible – I couldn’t understand the words so clearly, but I was delighted to hear the tone. [I pretended that were speaking Italian, and that was OK for me!]
The rest of the cast were admirable – committed, sincere and focused. Their ensemble work – particularly the decreasing echo of their ‘Cio-Cio-San’ when they realised she converted to Christianity, and the ‘Humming Chorus’ vigil – were accomplished. Declan Cudd as Goro was a slimy, ambitious character and his vocal tone was excellent but his words were lost in the orchestral texture. Roger Wilson as The Bonze lent his vast experience to the stage. I have to mention Jess Segal as Kate Pinkerton – a small role but crucial to the tragic outcome of the story. Sometimes, Kate is portrayed as sympathetic character, but Jess was the opposite – a haughty, superior, almost contemptuous woman, certain of her right to take her husband’s son from his ‘submissive’ mother.
That relates to the ‘racist’ nature of the story – that the young American civilisation should subsume the ancient Japanese culture, that American warships can anchor anywhere as rape the treasures of venerable civilisation, that a Christian mission should replace the Japanese religion practices. In this day and age, it was uncomfortable to witness to conversation between Pinkerton and Sharpless, the ambition of Goro, the superiority of Kate. In 1900s, when the opera was first performed [despite the fiasco of the first performance! ³ ] I wondered if the audience had the sensibilities we know now. Racial stereotypes with plays, operas, musicals, films – even books – can be a distressing problem. [Arizona Opera has an excellent article about racial stereotypes and opera.] For myself, I can cope with a white Othello, an asian Tosca, a black labrador renamed as Digger – even with a mixed cast for Porgy & Bess. If you know the story, the visual clues are not so important. Eternity Opera set the opera in 1953, not the original 1904, so the influence of America was more poignant and aggressive after the second world war. I applaud that they didn’t ‘Japanesie’ the characters with wigs or make up – ‘yellowface’. It would be like Black and White Minstrel shows! But visually, a kimono or two – especially with Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s mother or the traditionalist The Bonze – would be OK.
I believe that Puccini had no sympathy with the racists and that came out in his music. For example he transforms the patriotic ‘Star Spangled Banner’ into an ironic romantic aria. And when Cio-Cio-San is culturally threatened, he gave her a Japanese musical theme to ‘retreat’ into: when she reveals her treasures in the first Act, when she was offended by Pinkerton’s laughing, and the final theme at her suicide.
In a way the opera itself is a microcosm of the human existence. The finale of Act I, the duet of Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San is a revelation of what love means to a man and woman – Mars vs. Venus, the ardent, forceful passion of the male versus the seeking, enfolding and tender unfolding of the female psyche. Act II and Act III is almost a 12-step programme of a deluded soul: denial, hope, psychosis, joy, relief, sisterly love, delusion, betrayal, despair, desperation, sacrifice ….
The opera is quite static – no dancing or highjinks – and the stage was quite confined. Alex Glavin’s directing, the set, and the lighting appropriately made the most of what was available. When the chorus was offstage, Alex ensured that they can see the conductor from the wings or on the balcony. The stark set was minimal in a Japanese way – like an ikebana arrangement or a bonsai plant. [In fact, the ‘garden’ was a giant bonsai tree –manicured or tortured?] The back wall of the house were rectangular sliding screens that revealed a circular ‘window’ – very yin and yang! And the screens were used as an effective shadow board display particularly when Cio-Cio-San was getting ready of the wedding night.
An excellent production with a brilliant and professional musicians and crew that deserved it’s standing ovation.
The programme notes didn’t mention that the reduced orchestration was the work of Jonathan Lyness, but I suspect that Matthew Ross reduced the reduction, cut and pasted, and done without – so, I guess the appellation it not appropriate?
Operabase Statistics record that, for the 2004-2017 seasons, Madama Butterfly was 7th on the list with 5798 performances and 1208 productions worldwide.
An account of the fiasco of the first performance of Madama Butterfly, from the New York City Opera Project.