It’s easy enough to see the difficulty Madame Papillon place your thinking director. I share his pain. What the roaring brain will quickly see as a penetrating study, or at least scratching the surface, of a whole repertoire of modern obsessions – cultural appropriation, colonialization, child abuse, sexual predation – turns out to be just the latest. Puccini’s girl-bashing sublimation episode. , accompanied by some of his most sadistically beautiful music.
For Lindy Hume, the director of the new WNO production, Butterfly is no longer the fragile and accidental victim of a horrific American sailor on an overnight trip, but a battered and calculating teenager procured for a wealthy client with the promise. to escape him. horrible, controlling the family. So far, so plausible. But the attempt to see this sad little episode as a paradigm of what Hume calls contemporary real-world parallels in a dystopian version of the near future of our own society (including, presumably, one that reached its denouement in a court of law). New York only the other day) is much more problematic.
Puccini not only put his story in turn-of-the-century Japan, he also put his music there. Detail after detail of the score situates it, for better or for worse, in the quasi-fictional Japan which had already been brilliantly satirized by Gilbert and Sullivan in their Mikado a few decades earlier. And like the music, like the text. Line after line describes the delicate beauty of the little house, with its sliding doors, flowers and enchanting view of Nagasaki harbor.
The exquisite setting is a deliberate irony, like Mozart’s Gardens, a successful sweet disguise for hideous and lawless events. Replace all of that, as Isabella Bywater does, with a spinning airport control tower in a large white box, and replace flowery dresses and floating fans with silly, cavorting girls in fluffy tutus and family elders in twin costumes and sets is to kill the stone of dead irony and make music nonsense. Hume calls this capturing the polarities of the work: but it’s the wrong polarities, the ones that ridicule the genuinely foreigner alongside Butterfly’s heartfelt and touching embrace of her husband’s culture, here parodied by a bank of machines. washing, a kitchen bar and what is now permitted to us to call a toilet, while the music continues its own delightful and carefree course.
I’m sorry to say I found the sheer ugliness of this production a distraction from its serious elements and especially from the music, mostly well played and sung under Carlo Rizzi. Joyce El Khoury (photo above with Mark Stone and amenities) is a strong Cio-Cio-San, with a fine, controlled tone over a wide range and a great sense of style, but she is dressed inappropriately and visually misinterpreted as too tall next to Peter Auty’s Pinkerton, who speaks of its small size. Auty himself (second cast to Leonardo Caimi, who sang the first two nights) gets the rudeness of Pinkerton’s manners and appearance almost too well, sings (including his final act aria) eloquently but at times a rough tone, while Sharpless, Mark Stone, seemed cranky at this third performance, never quite finding the lyricism Puccini opposed to Pinkerton’s impetuosity.
I appreciated more Keel Watson’s brief but emphatic Bonze, and especially Anna Harvey’s Suzuki, a true portrait and incisively sung, if not helped a lot by being modernized, in the second act, in a Californian of about twenty years out of a television soap opera. You can lose the Japanese context if you have to, but what replaces it must echo the refinements of the original, not throw them into oblivion.