I do love Madama Butterfly. I do prefer Tosca, La Boheme and Turandot in terms of story, Madama Butterfly has moments of implausibility though is overall very touching, but some of Puccini's most beautiful music is here. This ROH production is not in the same league as the La Scala, Kabaivanska and Ponnelle productions, all three excellent, but is miles ahead of the Daniela Dessi Torre Del Lago production, which was an outrageous mess. I also did prefer last year's Carmen, that also was shot in 3D.
Was there anything that I didn't like so much? Actually, there was very little wrong despite my worries. Perhaps the staging at times was on the too-straightforward side, and I do think the performance of Bonze could have been more foreboding. My worries namely came from whether Madama Butterfly would actually work shot in 3D and I did question was there a need for it? I can definitely see why people would think there was no need, it is one of those operas that doesn't rely on the more gimmicky stuff but more of telling a very heartfelt and emotional story.
That said, the 3D did work. The images are not as striking or as memorable as they were in last year's Carmen, but at least they are clear and don't distract too much from the drama, a problem I find a lot with technical "gimmicks". In fact, when it came to the human emotions that Puccini conveyed so well in his music and operas, I felt it heightened the drama. I did like the look of the production. Okay I do prefer a more oriental and sumptuous staging, rather than the minimalist setting shown here. But I can see why this approach was done, and it is at least more attractive than the entire cast looking like insects(Torre Del Lago I'm looking at you). I do think it was to emphasise a darker edge to the emotional core of the opera, and to show a realism to counterpoint against Butterfly(Cio-Cio San)'s more idealistic hope and genuine love.
I know that view is going to sound like mumbo-jumbo to a lot of people and that I am not explaining it very well at all, but that's how I saw it.
And it is shot in a very cinematic way. What was also impressive about how it was shot was its authenticity, it doesn't feel as though you were watching it from a seat in the opera or from your television in your living room. It actually felt as though you were there, and if there was one thing I preferred over Carmen it was this. Musically, there is very little to fault. There is some very nuanced orchestral playing here, the many lyrical moments are full of pathos and the more stirring parts still tugging at your heart. The lines they make are elegant, there is evident care to make them balanced, the strings were especially impressive in bringing that lush sound needed for Puccini's score and they are very musical. The conducting is equally impressive for similar reasons, and the chorus make a beautiful sound.
The performances were great. Liping Zhang did do a great job in the title role. True, she isn't your picture of a fifteen-year old girl as implied in the libretto, then again are there any Butterflys that are. And I seriously doubt fifteen year olds would be up to the demands of the role(a mix of lyric to lyric-spinto soprano I think), the final scene especially is as heart-breaking yet as challenging for this opera as Sola Perduta Abbandanata is for Manon Lescaut. Zhang sings beautifully and while at the start she is not as youthful as one would like as her character ages she fully inhabits the role.
James Valenti is excellent as Pinkerton. He sings with a great ring and a strong yet not-too-beige(I am using a term for dynamics or potentially a lack of them) sound. The fact that he is also handsome gives credibility to his initially dashing nature and you can definitely see what Cio-Cio San sees in him in the first place. He is successful, if not as, at bringing out the side that makes Pinkerton not so likable to the audience after. There is definitely a good chemistry between the two in their love duet, one of the many highlights of the opera.
They do have an excellent supporting cast as well. Helene Schneidermann is a sympathetic Suzuki in her loyalty to Cio-Cio San and also has moments where she is touching. Anthony Michaels-Moore, known to me previously as an excellent Captain Bulstrode in the Met's Peter Grimes, is a caring- primarily in the scene where Sharpless reads the letter to Cio-Cio San- and vocally nuanced Sharpless. His anger at Pinkerton at the beginning is also convincing. I am not a fan of Robin Legatte's voice but considering the character of Goro that wasn't so big a problem. Jeremy White has a good voice, better than most Bonze's, but his stage presence as said earlier didn't seem foreboding enough to me.
All in all, much better than anticipated. Not the most ideal production of this great opera but a long way from being an unwatchable mess. 8/10 Bethany Cox
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