Nigel Jarrett is at the Wales Millennium Centre for a Welsh National Opera performance of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.
Every opera house is on the lookout for a production that keeps audiences flocking to its doors. Usually it’s a popular work and the revenue-spinning revivals, by that token, displace some more adventurous exercise not guaranteed to generate the same volume of receipts. The problem, if problem there is, becomes one of accommodation.. Does the house keep reviving year after year? Or does it reach the point at which a new production needs to be commissioned?
Photo: Neil Bennett
Joachim Herz’s 35-year-old version of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly for Welsh National Opera currently looks immortal. It always has. Revived for the Spring season as the centrepiece, logistically if not otherwise, of a trio of operas whose heroines are seen by company boss David Pountney as ‘free spirits’ – including the eponymous quadruped in Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen – it can look and sound as fresh as it did at its unveiling in November 1978 at the New Theatre, Cardiff, WNO’s base before it decamped to the WMC.
The sepia-washed sets and costumes of Reinhart Zimmermann and Eleonore Kleiber give the appearance of an innocuous faded photograph, which points up the theme of culture clash that Herz was keen to re-emphasise together with the opera’s gender issues, both as problematic today as perhaps they ever were, global villages notwithstanding. One could argue that the uniform colour on stage – Cio-Cio-San’s kimono and white bedchamber attire excepted – is egalitarian and suppresses the kind of individuality that justifies and highlights different moral positions. In the 1970s, Eastern European directors and their teams were much favoured by some Western opera companies and the resulting production values unequivocally Left when they were not Left and utterly incomprehensible. In Herz’s view, the camera-toting Lieutenant Pinkerton embodies a crass Western culture more than he does in any other version. He’s still more of a Yankee cad than he is a man with a heart not willingly vouchsafed. It’s interesting to note that Zimmermann, Kleiber and Herz are now dead. Pountney’s first-night revival was performed in the presence of Herz’s widow, Frau Kristel Pappel, and dedicated to her husband’s memory. Perhaps it is time in Cardiff for a new look at Butterfly, or even for the work itself to take a rest. Madam Butterfly a ‘free spirit’? Herz, having made allowances for her predicament after she’s renounced a value system Pinkerton is incapable of understanding, might also have sympathised with The Bonze, Cio-Cio-San’s splenetically denunciating priest, especially as played here by the towering Julian Close.
This performance was the 206th since that opening night at ‘the New’. Those who have attended most of the revivals will know that little can militate against Herz’s original vision, one co-devised with Puccini expert Julian Smith, at the time a member of WNO’s music staff and later to become its Head of Music. They put together a version based on Puccini’s own attempts to arrive at a satisfactory dramatic structure and involving the restoration of music the composer had originally cut. With such a long-surviving work in repertory, WNO’s staff directors have been responsible for the production’s maintenance. There‘s also been some tweaking, particularly in the choreography of stage movements. Not for years have we seen Pinkerton’s cowardly letter to the US Consul Sharpless videoed, scrolled down and screen-projected. In 1998, the set was badly in need of a re-fit, which was carried out with financial help from the Peter Moores Foundation. Apart from these minor improvements, concentration and interest have centred on cast changes.
Many Butterflies have fluttered across the stage, some making the young teenage geisha believable as a character out of her depth, others as a rebellious daughter who is no better than she ought to be. Few have captured the character’s combination of vulnerability and maturity. The current one, Australian soprano Cheryl Barker, an experienced Cio-Cio-San, is all adult, probably because it’s the demeanour her vocal presence, with its firm but unforgiving upper tessitura, projects most instinctively She’s no waif. But what Butterfly is? We suspend disbelief for her as much as we do for Trouble, her three-year-old child, who’s always played by someone slightly older and for obvious reasons. Gwyn Hughes Jones, in fine voice as Pinkerton, is Herz’s archetypal Yankee rotter and Claire Bradshaw’s Suzuki just about perfect as both singer and actor; but attention settles this time on Alan Opie’s Sharpless, a man not wholly enamoured of the culture he represents overseas. The voice’s authority is a foil to the character’s basic weakness and for that reason takes on a spurious edge. Philip Lloyd Holtam is matching John Harris, the original marriage broker Goro, in managing to be scheming and slippery, and in doing so reminds us that the Japanese characters who populate the stage when population is needed are an indifferent crew compared with the no-nonsense attendants of The Bonze and Prince Yamadori (Alastair Moore), the drama’s unavailing figures of authority.
Julian Smith, no longer with Welsh National Opera, has conducted many performances with de facto propriety, though there’ve been others who have brought out the score’s luscious detail. Frenchman Frédéric Chaslin is sharing duties with another former Welsh National Opera staff conductor, Gareth Jones, for this revival and on the first night gave as vivid an account of it as most would have wished, though his enthusiasm permitted a number of slips ’twixt stage and pit. The surprise was that no-one seemed to have noticed in rehearsal that the Humming Chorus, that divine interval in the drama’s rising action, could scarcely be heard, perhaps because the singers were located somewhere distant in the theatre’s cavernous fastnesses. It would have never happened at ‘the New’, where there was no fastness. Such details are important, if only because Puccini was keen to merge his natural gift for the lyrical with the exotic sounds of a ‘foreign’ musical style, which fascinated him enough to suggest that the yoking of Butterfly to rigid custom was as interesting as her desire to be released from it. The tragedy of the ’free spirit’ that is Madam Butterfly is her failure to exercise the freedom wrested from tradition and the evidence in Puccini’s writing for the great love duet that she would have been a match for Pinkerton’s ardour, had it possessed any depth. That it genuinely seems to, in places, only makes the issues Herz addresses more complicated than he might have wished to admit.
Nigel Jarrett writes and reviews for Jazz Journal magazine, and contributes a column called Count Me In. Based in Monmouthshire, he also writes on many subjects for Wales Arts Review. He is the winner of the Rhys Davies Prize and the Templar Shorts Prize for short fiction, and the author of three books of stories, a poetry collection, and a novel.