Glyndebourne’s first Butterfly

29 Oct

Madama Butterfly is one of my pet aversions.  I’ve never had much time for the heroine and have never found myself particularly moved by her predicament.  If I’m to have Puccini, I’d rather have the melodrama or Tosca or the relative vivacity and realism or Boheme, as opposed to what I always feel is slushy and patronising in its pseudo-orientalism.  I find the second half, in particular, a bit of a trial.  I haven’t seen it for 24 years so I decided that a new Glyndebourne production might be the time to revisit it and see whether I’ve mellowed.  There’s also an ROH one coming up with Jaho and Pappano and I may have to go along.  Anyway, I saw the Glyndebourne tour production on 26th October.

I didn’t hate it or have that feeling that I recall having once, at the beginning of the second act that there was 80 minutes of wailing women to come and I ought to have left at the interval.  I wasn’t converted either.

Anneliese Miskimmon has updated the opera to the 1950s.  Act I is in Goro’s marriage bureau and he clearly has a roaring trade in child brides.  Alun Rhys-Jenkins’s acting was created a convincing, repulsive businessman even if I found his voice a bit on the dry side and he undercuts the love duet by turning up to count his money as Butterfly and Pinkerton leave.  Otherwise, I couldn’t see that it shed any new light on the opera – personally, I doubt that there is.  What we had was a well-prepared, convincing telling of the story with no particularly striking images or anything to upset anyone.  Glyndebourne well within its comfort zone.

Nicky Shaw’s set works well enough for the tour, but it actually looks rather old-fashioned and almost cheap, particularly in the second act where I wasn’t convinced by the wooden trees.  I wonder how it will look in the context of the Festival, particularly where there isn’t really enough going on inside it to make it interesting.

The cast was very decent.  Karah Sun, a Korean pupil of Mirella Freni’s was a strong Butterfly.  She suggested the strength and integrity of the character.  Her voice is strong, with a slight metallic edge, not unsuitable here.  There’s a lot of intelligence and potential here.  Matteo Lippi has a very warm, grateful Pavarotti-ish tenor and I hugely  enjoyed his vocal contribution, particularly to the love duet and the trio.  He looked good but didn’t really suggest any particular depth to the character.  Probably because there isn’t any.

Claudia Huckle seized Suzuki and made a very fine, concerned, angry, protective character and sang it really strongly.  That is a gift of a role.  Francesco Verna made a a tired, cynical, decent Sharpless and sang it pretty well.  None of the others particularly stood out, but then you don’t expect them to.

John Wilson conducted.  He didn’t resist the temptation to give a very slight sense of Hollywood now and then to the score.  It was a perfectly fine reading but I didn’t feel that he particularly had Puccini in his blood and, for that reason, I probably need to get to hear Pappano do it.  The orchestra was fine.

So this was a perfectly decent, well-prepared Butterfly and it’ll appeal to audiences.  And that’s fair enough.  Glyndebourne may well feel that it does enough interesting and out-of-the way work and that this needs to be balanced with something more conservative to keep the punters coming in.  I just didn’t feel that it had quite the life that David McVicar injected in Boheme or anything that made it particularly unique or provided a visual perspective equivalent to Graham Vick’s 1980s ENO version.

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