Tuesday, June 7, 2011


As a fitting sequel to an afternoon delving into the Meiji era, last night at the New National Theatre Tokyo was the first of a run of Madama Butterflys.

It was the direction I was most looking forward to, wondering how the Japanese would tackle it, on what level the emphasis, what it would look like, and lastly if I'm honest, how it would sound. The director was Kuriyama Tamiya, the award winning artistic director of New National Theatre for drama since 2000 and design by Shimo Jiro. Good - this was to be a Japanese Butterfly, nothing imported here. Well, except the leads - a Russian Butterfly and a Serbian Pinkerton, but then there was a Japanese American Consul and a Japanese Kate. 'Trouble' was, not surprisingly, a seriously cute black-haired little Japanese boy.

And the best surprise of all as it turned out, was the Franco-Canadian conductor Yves Abel and what came from the pit. His Butterfly pedigree is good, including one with someone we know. It was a case of came to see, stayed to listen. With a strong sense of where the whole was going, it was well driven (well very well driven for the One Fine Day, too well I thought, but that was the exception) but otherwise giving love and attention to those delicate moments, oozing gorgeous Puccini phrases without overindulgence, very attentive to the singers and keeping a kind (to them) balance while letting the orchestra roll it out when their turn came, and lifting things from the score I've never heard, gorgeous things, like the harp! The climax I'm hear to tell you was devastating.

A high semicircular set dominated the stage, a cyclorama for shadows and spooks, creating an inner world of isolation and entrapment with the outside world hinted at through a upper opening from which a large staircase curved down to Butterfly's small minimalist house suggested by one wall of Shoji sliding doors, a large terrace with a solitary post, with sweepings of autumn leaves and later the ubiquitous blossom petals. The post was almost phallic, though I don't think for a second that was the intention. She was of sincere heart. But with swapping the outside fluttering 'Stars and Stripes' for a moon, removing the little screen doors, one would be ready for lighting change, another two worlds, and Salome.

The costumes were, of course, entirely authentic. Butterfly in white in Acts 1 and 3, and sombre purple black for Act 2. Pinkerton is hard to get wrong. Suzuki and the women's chorus were in kimonos of the most subtle mushrooms, grey, soft blues, morphing with lighting changes from warm supporters to disappearing shadows as they turned their backs in the chilling 'O Cio-Cio San' with Butterfly left in garish isolation. And the minor roles were splendidly dressed, a scary Bonze and most aristocratic formal Yamadori, arriving in a black lacquered rickshaw.

The stairs as you can imagine were perfect for Butterfly's fatal entrance. It gets me every time, and this time I really welled up. Even Olga Guryakova's nervous sounding start, marred by a very wide vibrato and poorly controlled dynamics failed to dint this hauntingly beautiful moment. I sat there thinking how surreal it all was, seeing this 'the right way' at last, a few paper lanterns, the women with their self-effacing stoop as only the Japanese know how, escorting Butterfly haltingly down into her snare. While things got worse for Butterfly, things got better for Ms Guryakova. She has a beautiful timbre, rich with dark colours, and more than once I wondered if this was in anyway what Tebaldi sounded like live. Her highs were (mostly) there, buoyed by her tippy toes, though alarmingly often cut short, seeming to sacrifice control at the altar of volume. Joan would have something to say about breath support I expect. As for charactisation, going on against the locals is some disadvantage.

She would climb the stairs one last time for the night vigil.

Zoran Todorovich (that's not him in the poster above) was a handsome Pinkerton, rather awkward, perhaps intentionally, and a certain tightness in his sound was to ease later on. Mr Tamiya kept his characters well separated, except from the lovely Suzuki of Obayashi Tomoko: this Butterfly was a lonely lost creature. Even in the 'Vieni Vieni' Pinkerton stood perfunctorily on the terrace as Butterfly wandered back and forth, back to him, in the leaves. Sharpless was particularly well sung by the Vienna based Kai Eijiro and the deliciously scurrilous Goro of Takahashi Jun was the most complete characterisation on stage. The chorus was lovely. Other tear jerking moments were the scene with the Bonze, a crouching scary ancient with an equally creepy almost crippled companion, and the splendid moment of the cannon fire, as the flag appeared again, and Butterfly rushed to the footlights (and nearly into the pit) - her voice in good control now, and certainly more then her emotions.

So it was all rather big picture stuff, imperialism, the entrapment of poverty and the power of position and money. It's happening in New York right now. But the climax was yet to come, so spoiler alert on the infinitesimal chance that anyone is reading this let alone reading before seeing it. Butterfly prepares for her death with her back to the audience, kneeling, eyes fixed on the fluttering American flag. From the moment the knife pierces her neck, she is frozen, the orchestra in thrilling form, thank you Mr Abel, and as Pinkerton calls her name, it is not he who runs out, but little 'Trouble' in the middle of the terrace, staring at his transfixed mother, she transfixed by that flag, till at the great climactic moment her little house and child retract away, and with a blinding flash of light of nuclear brilliance, a horrible horrible light, she falls dead, in Nagasaki.

(Curtain calls - mainly to show the set)


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your account.

Smorg said...

Awesome! Feel almost like I was there myself, but of course I wasn't and am very grateful that you took the time to compose this. :oD I've wondered how the Japanese would stage that opera, too.