Posts Tagged ‘ Puccini ’

Madam Butterfly (Bangkok Butterfly) – review

King’s Head Theatre, Islington
Dir: Adam Spreadbury-Maher

Puccini’s Madam Butterfly is the latest to get OperaUpClose’s pub treatment and it by and large survives it.

In Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production the action is transported to modern Bangkok, from Puccini’s original Japan, and the geisha Madam Butterfly becomes a Thai ladyboy. Butterfly is introduced to an American officer, Pinkerton, who is fascinated by the young ladyboy (she is supposed to be 15): ‘She is a stunner, exotic and wondrous…Heart of a boy but the soul of a woman.’ During a party someone sarcastically suggests marriage and there is a jokey ceremony. Butterfly- naïve and desperate to escape – takes Pinkerton’s vows of love at face value and waits loyally for him when he goes back to America. For Pinkerton, however, the affair is just a bit of fun.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production undoubtedly has its moments: Margaret Cooper has the right mix of coquettishness and innocence for Butterfly. As she tidies the flat ready for Pinkerton’s return she is excited and poignantly childlike. Alison Dunne, as the maid Suzuki, has a beautifully rich mezzo-soprano voice: it is a pity her character doesn’t have more to sing. Mario Sofroniou is fairly detestable as Pinkerton – as he should be – and while his voice fills the small space it doesn’t overwhelm the audience. The trio between Suzuki, Pinkerton and Sharpless (brought vividly to life by Oliver Gibbs) towards the end of the opera is simply staged and is one of the highlights of the evening, as are the tender scenes between Butterfly and her maid, Suzuki.

The cast are almost without exception conservatoire graduates so inevitably the standard of singing is high – although in the role of Butterfly, Cooper’s vibrato is too wide for my taste. Musical director Elspeth Wilkes had just two other players to work with – a violinist/violist and a clarinettist – and with such limited resources Puccini’s heroic music does lose some of its force.

But I remain unconvinced about the justification for changing the setting so dramatically – not least because making Butterfly a ladyboy causes an obvious biological problem when it comes to the baby she’s supposed to have had. I’m still not sure exactly how they explained the sudden appearance of the child. While ladyboys and geishas have certain parallels, the concept felt ill-thought-out: for example, in Puccini’s original, Butterfly and all her family believe she is marrying Pinkerton for good and it is only Pinkerton who regards it as a sham. In Spreadbury-Maher’s production, the whole marriage idea is a joke: the “ceremony” is conducted by one of the other Amercian officers at the party. Everyone realises it is a sort of playground marriage – except Butterfly.

This version of the tale is not less poignant but it becomes a different tragedy: a tragedy not of betrayal but of delusion. Butterfly is so desperate to get away from her life standing ‘on bars in Patpong road’ that she puts her faith in a ghost of a marriage. What is more, Puccini’s music – written to evoke the highly stylised and constricted life of the Japanese geishas – doesn’t fit with the tacky clothes and miserable life of these lady boys. Nevertheless, the story is moving and the music beautiful, but as a fellow audience member said during the interval ‘the music would be poignant if they’d set it in a chicken factory.’

This review originally appeared on The Public Reviews


Tosca, Puccini, ENO

music by Giacomo Puccini
libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
trans. by Edmund Tracey
ENO, London Coliseum

ENO’s production of Puccini’s barnstormer, Tosca, is knowledgeable yet aloof; academic yet distant. This is a “diet” Tosca, where darker shades and richer textures are reduced or taken away completely.

Directed by Catherine Malfitano, a celebrated Tosca in her own right, this production is broadly traditionalist – from Gideon Davey’s unobtrusive period costumes, to Malfitano’s decision to restore contemporary details to the libretto. Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s imposing, geometric set makes the singers look like dolls. The battlements of Castel Sant’Angelo dwarf the singers, creating a sense of loneliness and vulnerability. David Martin Jacques’ lighting design works with Schlössmann’s set to create a visually impeccable piece.

Amanda Echalez is everything you could ask for in a Tosca: fiery and vulnerable; mischievous with a hint of the malevolent. Her voice can simmer with anger or tremble with barely-concealed terror, from its rich lower tones to the bright-as-brass top. Her diction could be clearer but Echalez’s Tosca is a rational, believable creature, laughing at her own jealousy and brimming with the excitement of an adolescent lover.

Julian Gavin’s Cavaradossi, though technically right on the money, lacks the necessary intensity in the famous ‘E lucevan le stelle’ aria and his relationship with Echalez’s Tosca is clumsy and lacking in chemistry. Anthony Michaels-Moore lacks the bile-filled malice which the part of Scarpia demands with the result that his attempted rape of Tosca is unconvincing. Edward Gardner does not help matters at the end of Act One by rushing the final, dramatic chords. Overall, however, his interpretation is youthful and the music sounds fresh under his baton.

Yet the evening feels muted: though this may be deliberate. In a strikingly frank programme note, Arman Schwartz argues the case for a ‘modernist Tosca: Puccini’s music, he says, ‘participates in the stage action without ‘interpreting’ it’. The aim, Schwartz claims, was ‘to build a wall between the audience and the on-stage world.’

As such, Malfitano’s production failed to grip as it should: at times the production seemed to be fighting against the impulses of Puccini’s score. Real, human emotion was lacking and as Puccini himself said: ‘Only with emotion can one achieve a triumph that endures.’