Of all the productions of Madama Butterfly that are possible, why revive this one? That’s what I asked myself as I sat, bored out of my mind, in what should have been a riveting night of music.
The source material is problematic enough with one of the top heels in opera, B.F. Pinkerton, procuring himself a 15 year old girl to amuse himself with while in a foreign post, convincing her their love is true to the point that she turns her back on her family and culture, “marrying her” and then abandoning her, presumably forever, while she waits patiently for his return and her money runs out. When he finally does return, it’s only to take the child he didn’t know he had and for her to commit suicide from her public humiliation. So fun times at the opera house on its best day. And let’s not even get into the issues of consent.
The primary reason everyone goes to see this is to hear Puccini’s glorious music beautifully played and sung. And that is the thing this production delivers. The Lyric very seldom fails in providing a fabulous listening experience and this production is no exception with Ana Maria Martinez completely owning Cio-Cio-San and doing fabulous vocal work with every bit of this challenging role, her “Un Bel Di” is glorious. Brian Jagde is equally strong as B.F. Pinkerton, Anthony Clark Evans as Sharpless and Deborah Nansteel as Suzuki. The “Tutti I fior” duet between Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki is the highlight of this production even beyond Martinez’ incredible aria. Hearing them sing together gives you shivers. The chorus, despite how little they had to do, was as usual, wonderful. You have a crack cast and orchestra delivering this score masterfully.
Shame that’s all the Lyric gave them to do.
This is one of the dullest productions I have ever seen. The Lyric is known for some park and bark but honestly, the amount of standing around and singing directly forward during dramatic scenes in this is maddening. It might as well be a concert, not an opera. The characters barely interact.
Madama Butterfly is massively emotional and melodramatic as a piece. You do not buy Cio-Cio-San or her plight at all if you don’t see emotions expressed by the characters, and this production, with people screeching at each other from feet away, makes utterly no sense at all in a story that is ultimately about betrayal within an intimate relationship. People standing about like stumps on stage or standing motionless within dramatic scenes of emotional agony just doesn’t work and it’s utterly the fault of the direction. There are a zillion ways you can interpret this problematic work and it’s like the directors decided to go with NONE. It doesn’t have a POV at all. It takes no stands. It’s utterly uninteresting in every way.
Shoutout here to Rodell Rosel as Goro, however. Playing the completely self-serving and awful marriage broker, he bucked the trend of the entire production and absolutely brought it in everything he did, he stood out because he was interesting. My bet is he made up his own business seeing nobody else had any. He was acting his heart out as well as singing and it worked and he was great. I wish everyone had followed his lead, though Deborah Nansteel as Suzuki had a couple of moments, too.
It’s unclear whether the responsibility for these decisions lies with the original director Michael Grandage or the revival director Louisa Muller, but by depriving the singers – who are trying to do all the dramatic heavy lifting with their glorious voices – of meaningful staging, the direction has gutted this rightfully classic opera of its trademark drama.
Let’s get to the most egregious bit, the break between Act II and III. Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki and Sorrow go up the hill to wait for Pinkerton to return. The orchestra plays, the stage slowly revolves while they sit unmoving for 7 minutes while the moon creeps across the sky. That’s 7 minutes of my life I’ll never get back, thanks. I got that they waited a long time after the first minute.
As a director pal of mine said when I mentioned this waste of time, “7 minutes in theatre is the lifespan of a good dog.” Just no.
I also have to make a note on the costumes in this by Christopher Oram. They are as dull as the production, which is hideously ahistorical for Japanese culture. Just take a stroll down to the Art Institute and look at their collection and you can see what I mean. Shrouding your supposedly wealthy Japanese folks and Geisha, for heaven’s sake, in dull gray and brown fabrics with no pattern or embroidery is just garbage. (And it’s getting really old in opera, too. I have a depressing opera, I know, everyone will wear gray!) Servants in plain kimonos, maybe, but Geisha going to a wedding of another Geisha? No way.
On the other hand, the lighting design by Neil Austin (original) and Chris Maravich was subtle and beautiful. The set, despite the massive stage rake, was minimalist and lovely and reminded you of Japanese paintings. It was, however, confusing as heck to know whether people were inside or outside the house with just one shoji screen to let us know whether we were inside. The director didn’t help that by blurring the lines in the blocking, either.
If you like to go to live opera for the drama and beauty of it other than just the singing, this is probably not the production for you.
It runs from now until March 8th with a change in cast in March to soprano Lianna Haroutounian making her Lyric debut as Cio-Cio-San and Brandon Jovanovich as Pinkerton.
Photos by Todd Rosenberg.
Tickets are available at the Lyric Box Office.