Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Madama Butterfly “en Cinema” – so what?

As pop-star Basia (what’s she up to these days?) once sang, “Hello again, it’s me!” (the actual song title is A New Day for You from her Time and Tide album.)

The new production of Madama Butterfly from the Teatro Real in Madrid is wonderfully sung and played. (Some sing better than others, of course.) It happens to be Independence Day here in the U.S.; so, it seems oddly appropriate to watch this “ugly American” tale. In reality, this is the first absolutely free day I’ve had in a while. And it was just broadcast (streamed) live on the Opera Platform (OP) on 30 June.

Sadly, when you click to watch it on demand, you get the following message: “Sorry, this video is no longer available.” However, if you scroll down further, you’ll learn that there were “complications during the live streaming.” So instead of “no longer available,” it’s really only “not available yet.” 

Anyway, Teatro Real also live-streamed it on their Facebook page and you can find that on YouTube (with Spanish subtitles.) It’s a beautiful production, and it's the description on the OP site that tempted me to watch an opera that is low on my “Operas I Love” list:

Director Mario Gas sets his new interpretation of the opera on the stage of Madrid’s Teatro Real in a 1930’s film studio where they are working on a film adaptation of Puccini’s opera. Gas opens the opera’s plot up by adding a film crew, offering two interpretations simultaneously: the acting in front of the camera and the actual film.

What the director actually does is merely capitalize on the current trope of live streaming the opera on screens above the stage (see La Clemenza di Tito from La Monnaie, where it’s a news camera crew doing the filming; and several Don Giovannis in which one or more of the singers use their iPhones to live stream their antics.) In Clemenza and Giovanni the cameras/projections added another dimension to the story.

In this Butterfly, I kept waiting for the “film” layer to add new ideas; maybe showing us the relationship of the singers to one another off camera. However, all the cameras and crew do is get in the way, distancing us from the drama. Maybe that’s what the director intended. I guess I’ve been spoiled by Stefan Herheim. I’ve read about his Butterfly (I wonder if a video exists) in which Puccini has an active role; he had a subplot involving the Statue of Liberty (no, that was his Manon Lescaut); guest appearances by Manon, Mimi, and Tosca; and the concept that neither Puccini or the soprano want her to die; but she does anyway. That’s opera.

But I digress. The singing in this performance ranges from great (Cio-Cio-San (Jaho), Goro (Vas), the Bonze (Radó), the chorus), to somewhere between good and pretty good (most of the rest). Albanian soprano, Ermonela Jaho also sang the title role recently in Washington, DC (why, oh why did I leave DC?) and London—I hear she was great in London—and she’s scheduled for a series of Butterflies (the wonderful Minghella production) at the Met next winter*. She thoroughly inhabits the role; we can see (and hear) all of the character’s emotions. At first, I thought her acting was a little coy, but she is playing a 15-year-old girl; she went on to express the combination of hope and world-weariness of the older (18!!), more experienced Butterfly. I would watch this again for Ms. Jaho. Pinkerton (the tenor we love to hate) is sung by Jorge de León, who handles his part well, but does not dazzle. But the opera isn’t about him anyway.

If they revive this production, and I am consulted (I won’t be) I’d tell them to ditch the “film-making” concept. It seems tacked on, and not well-integrated with the rest of the staging. As noted above, I found the presence of extra people and equipment on stage distancing. And never more so than at the very end, when two huge cameras zoom in on the dying Butterfly. Fortunately, the first curtain call finds Butterfly still “dead.” When the actress rises to acknowledge the applause, she is visibly shaken—still caught up in the drama. I love it!

Incidentally, while finding the YouTube link for this post, I came across the 2015 presentation (with a mostly different cast) from Teatro Real. This is the revival! Interestingly, it looks like the “we’re making a film” concept isn’t there! Or else the performance was carefully filmed to avoid showing the “cameras and crew.” I spot-checked it, and for me it works much better. But I do love Ms. Jaho’s Cio-Cio-San. Watch this one. And stay tuned to the Opera Platform for their version (hopefully with English subtitles and slightly better picture.)

Ermonela Jaho - Cio-Cio-San
Enkelejda Shkosa - Suzuki
Marifé Nogales - Kate Pinkerton
Jorge de León - F. B. Pinkerton
Francisco Vas - Goro
Tomeu Bibiloni - Prince Yamadori
Ángel Ódena - Sharpless
Fernando Radó - The bonze, Cio-Cio-San's uncle
Music director - Marco Armiliato
Director - Mario Gas
Available on the Opera Platform until 10/31/2017

*Not scheduled for a Live in HD (I am sure the cinema operati would protest a third Live in HD of this production), but it probably will be broadcast on the radio (possibly March 3, 2018). Those Met performances also will be conducted by Marco Armiliato.

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