By James Karas
La Monnaie’s production of Madama Butterfly is aggressively different, has some fine singing and a few head scratchers. The production is in the Palais de la Monnaie, Tour & Taxis, the company’s temporary home while the main house in central Brussels is being renovated.
A blank white screen goes up for the action to begin and a woman in a gray wig, wearing a Japanese costume, goes to the left side of the stage. During the hubbub of the opening scene Cio-Cio San a.k.a. Madama Butterfly enters and she is a marionette handled by three marionettists. This will be the evening’s Cio-Cio San but the singing will be done by the woman on the side, soprano Alexia Voulgaridou.
Alexia Voulgaridou as Cio-Cio San and Aris Argiris as Sharpless. © Baus
Goro (Riccardo Botta) is showing Lieut. Pinkerton (Marcelo Puente) the house overlooking Nagasaki harbor that he and his bride will occupy but there is no house, just a couple of screens hanging from the ceiling. The arrival of Cio-Cio San’s friends and relatives is severely restricted. What we get is almost a concert performance of the opera for most part.
This is not your usual Madama Butterfly.
The production is by Kirsten Dehlholm and Hotel Pro Forma, a Danish theatre company that has been producing some revolutionary theatrical work for the past thirty years. Hotel Pro Forma, according to one source, espouses “the concept of theatre with strong visual and artistic effects … a fusion of visual arts, architecture, performance, digital interactions and theatre.”
Cio-Cio San, as an old woman is telling us the story of Cio-Cio San the thirteen-year old girl who married an American Navy lieutenant. We know that Cio-Cio San dies at the end of the opera but Dehlholm, it seems to me, wants to apply the Brechtian concept of epic theatre by insisting on narrating the story rather than attempting the classic representation of “real life” on the stage. It is theatre or opera at arm’s length.
AlexiaVoulgaridou (Cio-Cio-San) © Baus
The production is quite faithful to the approach. The set by Maja Ziska is unrealistic and unengaging. There is no attempt to make us feel we are in a specific locale. Cio-Cio San’s relatives look like they are from a space movie, perhaps Ninjas and let’s say their costumes are outlandish.
The problem is one of incongruity. Old plays and old operas are reimagined constantly just as old wine is put into new bottles but the objective I think is to bring out the best in the old play, opera or wine. In the case of Madama Butterfly, we want to see and feel the emotional impact of the opera not to have it defeated. Here are some thoughts arising from the production that may be seen to work in the wrong direction.
Voulgaridou barely moves except for one time when she slashes a blank screen. She does some of her singing sitting down. The three marionettists move the puppet Cio-Cio San around. I imagined Odysseus telling his adventures to the court of King Alkinoos with some actors or puppeteers re-enacting some of his adventures. You listen to Odysseus but watch the show. That is in effect the idea of epic theatre. Is this a legitimate approach to Madama Butterfly?
There is minimal interaction among the characters and the distinct preference is for the main singers to stand still and do their job. I think there is more freedom in a concert version than there was in this fully staged production.
Cio-Cio San’s son is a rather chubby marionette and, understandably perhaps, she does not have any contact with him. Voulgaridou sings a heart-wrenching “Tu, piccolo Iddio” as she says goodbye to her son but there is no correspondence between her voice and words and the actions of her alter ego, the marionette.
Marcelo Puente (F.B. Pinkerton), Marta Beretta (Kate Pinkerton), AlexiaVoulgaridou (Cio-Cio-San) © Baus
In the final scene, when she stabs herself and falls to the ground, Pinkerton and his wife Kate (Marta Beretta) rush in and simply stop a few feet away from her. There is no emotional reaction and falling on his knees by the creepy Pinkerton. The puppet of the little boy is blown up into a huge balloon reaching to the top of the stage and the intended effect escaped me.
Voulgaridou, despite the constraints put on her, sings with incredible power and emotional punch. You forget the disconnect between the teenage bride waiting with unbelievable longing for her beloved to return and the sterile puppet being moved around. She is a soprano at the top of her game and able to perform under challenging conditions.
Mezzo soprano Ning Liang gives a superb performance as Suzuki. Tenor Marcelo Puente is not at his best perhaps because he is hampered from much physical movement. His feet may not have been nailed to the floor boards but at times it looked as if they were. His middle was fine but his high notes were a struggle.
Baritone Aris Argiris sang the role of Consul Sharpless. He handles the vocal part without any difficulty but what caught my attention was his costume, a ridiculous beige suit and hair half-way down his back. This was a ludicrously unconsular attire and I have no idea what effect it was supposed to produce.
The Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie were conducted by Bassem Akiki and I should note the acoustics of the temporary quarters leave a lot to be desired.
In the end you have a choice. You can view the production as a bold, experimental jump into something different, something that will encourage thinking and esthetic experimentation. Or you can look at it as directorial self-indulgence that does not enhance your enjoyment of this opera.
See the production and choose.
Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini opened on January 31 and will be performed until February 14, 2017 at the Palais de la Monnaie, Tours & Taxis, Brussels, Belgium. www.lamonnaie.be