Butterfly at Bregenz

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is an opera I really have trouble with.  Done “straight” it’s just a horrible mixture of cultural appropriation and just plain ick.  It does have some good music though and opera companies insist on doing it roughy every five minutes so it would be really nice to find a production that worked dramatically.  The lake stage at Bregenz is just about the last place I’d expect to find that so I was pleasantly surprised that Andreas Homoki’s 2022 production is maybe the most interesting I’ve seen.1.arrival

I think what makes it work is that Homoki treats Puccini’s Japan as a fantasy.  The male characters and the chorus are costumed and made up as kabuki characters and all the Japanese characters, including Cio-Cio San and Suzuki move with stylized gestures,  They do this against a set that is a giant Japanese landscape brush painting.  The Japanese characters come and go via concealed stairways etc but the Americans appear through tears in the paper, as does a giant flagpole with an American flag to signify their “otherness”.  The Americans are given a stylized late 1940s treatment to, I suppose, reinforce the idea of colonial exploitation though one might suggest other allusions for Americans in post war Nagasaki.

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There are some other very cool visual touches.  Sorrow has a paper boat with the stars and stripes crayoned on.  A much enlarged version becomes, at least in Butterfly’s imagination, Pinkerton’s ship returning.  Projections are used to create a stormlike effect on the serene landscape.  There are interesting dramatic touches too.  There’s a sort of silent chorus of ghosts or kamis or something that comment on the action.  We also, jarringly, see the happy reunion of Pinkerton and Butterfly at the beginning of Act 3 before it becomes obvious it’s a dream.  For me, by being less realistic the production creates space for genuine emotion.

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It’s well sung and acted too.  Barno Ismatullaeva[1] makes the stylized gestures seem very human and she’s certainly got the vocal chops.  The big numbers are all lovely.  Annalisa Stroppa as Suzuki is equally good and very sympa.  Edgaras Montvidas is an athletic Pinkerton with full command of the music and isn’t any more annoying than the average Pinkerton.  Brian Mulligan is a nuanced and sympathetic Sharpless.  Taylan Reinhard does a really interesting job as Goro.  Musically he’s fine but it’s ability to do the kabuki clown thing that impresses.  He’s really into what he’s doing.  All the other roles are more than adequately covered.

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As you would expect the music gets the big dramatic treatment from conductor Enrique Mazzola and he’s backed up by a very good orchestra in the Wiener Symphoniker and a composite chorus from the Bregenzer Festspielchor and the Prague Philharmonic Choir.

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I really like Henning Kasten’s video direction. One gets a very good impression of the scale of the set; both how it fits in with its surroundings and how it dwarfs the people on stage, while providing enough closer shots to fully show off the nuances of the acting.  It’s a really nice balance and it’s backed up on Blu-ray with a first rate picture and excellent (DTS-HD MA and PCM) sound.

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There a useful bonus documentary; Hope and longing at Bregenz festival which has some interesting discussion of the music but is mostly about the building of the set and its tech requirements as well as the challenges it poses for the cast.  Some of the work the dancers do on a very steep and irregular stage is amazing!  The booklet also contains a useful essay as well as a synopsis and track listing.  Subtitle options are English, Italian, German,French, Spanish, Korean and Japanese (just English and German for the doco).

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All in all, the most watchable video of Madama Butterfly that has come my way.

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Catalogue number: C Major Blu-ray 762204

fn1 It’s the first time I’ve seen Ms. Ismatullaeva.  She’s from Uzbekistan and appears to be a member of the ensemble at Staatsoper Hamburg.

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