Opera Reviews
28 October 2020
Untitled Document

An evening which impressed the mind rather than moved the soul

by Moore Parker
Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Vienna State Opera
16 September 2020
Freddie de Tomasso (Pinkerton), Asmik Grigorian (Butterfly), Ensemble

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is the first in a line-up of popular standard repertoire works being updated under the new Directorship of Bogdan Roščić - in co-productions astutely selected with an eye to quality vis-à-vis budget.

Originally created some 15 years ago for English National Opera, Anthony Minghella’s (of Hollywood acclaim) first opera production thereafter opened New York’s Metropolitan 2006-7 season, with subsequent revivals in both houses as well as at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. Minghella’s widow, Carolyn Choa co-operated with her husband on  this Madam Butterfly - which she has now revived for Vienna.

Essentially stark and set around the period of composition, with “classic” Japanese elements such as simple rolling screens, choreographed lanterns, and other atmospheric props, the key to the stage-filling success here (designer, Michael Levine) is a vast angled ceiling mirror which effectively grants the audiences two shows simultaneously - the action both in front of and behind the sets.

Butterfly’s child takes the form of a life-sized puppet (guided by a three-man team with great discretion and expression) - a son who optically seems to have drawn his genes more from an earlier generation (with his mother hardly hinting at Asian stock - and Suzuki too, incidentally) and who endearingly quickly forms relationships with his stage contacts as much as with the audience. 

Act 2’s Intermezzo features a solo dancer (Tom Yang) enacting a condensed version of the plot with a miniature puppet depicting Butterfly - while the patient heroine looks on, awaiting her impending fate. 

The superb splurge of incandescent costumes in Act 1 (Han Feng) provides a wonderful contrast to the sombre setting and the rather ghostly figures in black who manage the staging throughout. 

This performance was the third of four in the current series - and as such - presumably settled and assured in all respects.   

While typically associated with recent triumphs such as Berg’s Marie or Richard Strauss’ Salome in this part of the world, Asmik Grigorian’s relationship with Italian repertoire has a past. The Lithuanian soprano scored in Madama Butterfly in a new production at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm back in 2014 (with revivals thereafter), and - relevant to Vienna - she was scheduled to perform Bellini’s Norma at the Theater an der Wien this Spring, a project which alas fell foul to COVID-19.

One of Puccini’s most testing parts, Butterfly is not only a tour-de-force for a lyric-spinto’s vocal chords in terms of endurance, but gruelling in its demand for emotional expression. Intrinsic to Grigorian’s art - integrity, intent, and focus win the day, rather than an instrument which is Italianate, seductive, or particularly distinctive in timbre. Intelligent phrasing and registering interactions underscore a fine sense of timing and poise throughout, with some finely-floated head tones contrasting with a generally chest-predominated melange of vocal colour. However, the tendency to swallow words detracts from moments bearing more potential, and (with an instrument of presence which projects well at all levels) greater tonal contrast is feasible - and desirable - between Butterfly’s entrance (Grigorian, incidentally, omitted the closing high Db here, as opposed to on the opening night) and the scenes which follow, as the character’s tragic fate unfolds. However a compelling showing and an already admirable achievement.

It’s remarkable to note that Ensemble members (mostly new), plus two Studio apprentices, constitute the remaining vocalists.

Italo-British tenor, Freddie de Tomasso joins the company
this season with not only the opening production in his portfolio but interesting challenges in the months to come. A touch stiff in his opening scene (and with a seeming hint of vocal contest between Pinkerton and Sharpless) de Tomasso relaxed into a well-shaped closing to Act 1 on a comfortable par with his soprano lead. 
In comparison, his Act 2 finale seemed a touch less effective than expected. But unquestionably, here is a new young talent with the essential range and quality of tone for this Fach, bearing much promise for things to come.

Boris Pinkhasovic, who was first seen here in 2018 as Figaro in Il barbieri di Siviglia and then as Tchaikovsky’s Onegin, created an unusually powerful - yet subtle - Sharpless. Indeed, one of the highlights of the evening was Act 2’s letter scene, which unfolded delightfully with fine nuance and perfect timing. 

The French mezzo, Virginie Verrez, returns from last season which included Zerlina and Cherubino in her line-up. She boasts a warm and expressive tone (occasionally a touch unstable in its heights) and a winning presence as an engaged and touching Suzuki.

Suavely understated - but grand in sweep - Andrea Giovaninni’s Goro more than made his mark, as did Evgeny Solodovnikov’s Bonze in his brief moment of drama, while the remaining cast well-underscored the taut and energetic performance.

The company’s new Music Director, Philippe Jordan, brimmed with energy and panache in a reading somewhat pressing in tempi, but which equally unfolded with delicacy - if not sentimentality - when appropriate, and with evident malleability in an otherwise taut rein. 

The finale sees Butterfly’s blindfolded son in the background waving a little American flag. As the heroine dies, two enormous cloth bindings in deep red are drawn from her Kimono across the stage to depict her wasted blood.

Text © Moore Parker
Photo © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Support us by buying from amazon.com!