Andreas Homoki directs Madama Butterfly in Bregenz (****)
The extraordinary thing about the Bregenzer Festival and its See stage is that scenographic possibilities can be explored that are quite inconceivable in an opera theater. The open air, the omnipresent water of Lake Constance, the magical ritual of the setting sun, and the size of the gigantic unitary stage set the conditions under which plays can be performed. It is only natural that in these circumstances the Festival would focus on spectacle rather than interpretive ingenuity and would invariably choose a work from the iron repertoire for this purpose. The execution is highly professional and seasoned opera fans need worry as little about the artistic level as the wider audience of non-experts for whom these performances are actually intended. With 28 performances, each for 7000 spectators, Bregenz makes an invaluable contribution to the democratization process of opera as an art form. It's a pretentious elite that doesn't want to see that. Only, it's not supposed to rain. Well, it didn't rain.
Speakers are set up left and right. The orchestra takes its place in the hall of the Festspielhaus. The sound of the soloists, equipped with microphones, is mixed with the orchestra sound from the hall. The sound system manages to position the sound produced by the soloists in such a way that it seems as if the sound leaves the source. The choir also sings from the auditorium. Their place on the stage is filled by extras. This creates additional possibilities for movement during mass movements. The level of spectacle is further enhanced by the use of stuntmen. Both the sound and the balance between orchestra and soloists are excellent. This Madama Butterfly is played without an intermission so the performance can clock in at 2 hours.
The premiere of Madama Butterfly, held on February 17, 1904 at the Scala in Milan, was an outright fiasco, in the vein of the Paris premiere of Tannhäuser. Although the performance made it to the end, it went down ingloriously in a pandemonium of shouting, whistling, laughter, and the usual shouts of "bis," meant to further excite the audience. Puccini's publisher Giulio Ricordi, himself no great fan of the work, wrote : "The spectacle in the hall seemed as well organized as that on the stage, for it began exactly with the beginning of the opera." Puccini was in shock. Never before had he been so confident of the success of a new opera. He had, by his own admission, worked on it with heart and soul and considered it his most modern work. Moreover, he had a top orchestra and soloists at his disposal, and at the end of the dress rehearsal the orchestra had celebrated him with a standing ovation.
Puccini biographer Mosco Carner did not mince his words and confirmed Ricordi's impression: enemies of Puccini had hired a claque to boycott the performance. There is no consensus as to who the instigators were. Was it Alberto Franchetti, the rich Jewish baron, composer and rival of Puccini, also known as the Italian Meyerbeer, who was bitter about the fact that Giulio Ricordi repeatedly favored Puccini within his publishing company? Was it Edoardo Sonzogno, Ricordi's rival and publisher of "Il secolo" that the next day declared the opera dead? Puccini withdrew his opera, revised it and three months later scored a hit with it in Brescia. Little was heard of Franchetti, but Puccini was soon able to buy himself a yacht with the royalties from his latest successful opera.
The best evidence for the boycott is that Puccini made no major changes for the revision for Brescia. He cut the second act, which contemporaries said was far too long, in two. It was, however, only an hour and a half long but even Toscanini was of the opinion that that might be fine for Wagner but not for Puccini. For the rest, he cut back on Pinkerton's cruder, racist remarks and added the aria "Addio, fiorito asil" that humanizes him a bit at the end.
Andreas Homoki's team does not bet on spectacle but highlights the piece from its poetic side. Michael Levine's unitary set is a styrofoam sheet painted with mountain peaks, trees and Japanese calligraphic texts. The feather-light paper sheet appears to float above Lake Constance but ultimately weighs 300 tons and covers 1340 square meters.
When white-masked Geishas, spiritual sisters of Cio-Cio-San perform a slow pantomime that far reminds of a butoh dance and the wave action of Lake Constance sounds loud and emphatic through the speakers it is clear that we are transported into a different kind of reality. That of electronic sound transmission. As always, the Wiener Symphoniker sounds very present, this time under the direction of Enrique Mazzola. The orchestra sound is full and not without detail, sometimes a bit woolly in the very low notes, and it has to make little effort to overwhelm in the orchestral climaxes. If the first act sounded a bit unnatural, especially as far as the voices were concerned, from the second act on a more correct balance set in. Was this an effect of habituation or had somebody been turning the controls?
The Americans are the Fremdkörper in this staging. They enter the stage through a crack in the sheet while a phallic flagpole raises the American Stars and Stripes meters high through another crack. “The Japanese figures can easily disappear and reappear on this paper, while the Americans tear a hole in the paper to appear. This violent intervention amounts to a destruction, a penetration.”, Homoki writes in the program book. It is also an excellent metaphor for 75 years of American foreign policy, a record of crimes that began with the senseless bombing of Cio-Cio-San's hometown of Nagasaki.
The sheet of paper is, of course, also a projection surface but video artist Luke Halls does not intrude. His interventions are limited to the illustrative, such as the curse of Uncle Bonzo or the rain of cherry blossoms during the vigil. The vigil, by the way, provides the best evidence that an intimist piece like Madama Butterfly is also possible in Bregenz. The humming chorus, a highlight in most stagings, is here in all its simplicity, with Cio-Cio-San all alone on the stage and indulging in hesitant, contemplative movements in Franck Evin's blue-gray light, the most haunting image of the performance.
For most of the second act, Cio-Cio-San will cloak herself in the star spangled banner. Sopranos today who cloak themselves in a blue and yellow banner do not realize that they are as naive as Cio-Cio-San. Eventually, Ukraine too, will find itself suicided by America's proxy war against the Russian Federation. While U.S. hegemonic ambitions are finally meeting resistance, 88% of the world has already sided with Vladimir Putin's multipolar world of sovereign states.
There is no intermission, and so the humming chorus of Butterfly's vigil can transition effectively into the dramatic opening measures of the interlude, just as Puccini always wanted. All of the chorus' interventions are excellent. The interlude itself, an early handkerchief moment, portrays the classic dream of the return of Pinkerton with presents for all. Goro, chased by Suzuki with a floor squeegee gets himself a wet suit in Lake Constance. Fortunately, he can also swim. The stately Prince Yamadori appears on a raft that seems to be carried by six slaves. Like angels of death, the Geishas will hand Cio-Cio-San the fatal dagger in the finale. Having avoided all spectacle, in the very last bars Luke Hall's video flames will consume the paper sheet in a flash followed by a real blaze at the top. So, spectacle after all!
Even though I had hoped for Elena Guseva, Uzbek soprano Barno Ismatullaeva sings a great Cio-Cio-San. "Un bel di" was spot on, the duet with Sharpless was given all the intensity needed, surpassed only by the heartbreaking finale. Annalisa Stroppa provided Suzuki with a mezzo sound that contrasted nicely with the timbre of the title role interpreter. Brian Mulligan once again deployed his splendid baritone for a rock-solid Sharpless. Edgaras Montvidas, had the most trouble sounding natural in the first act but in the moments that matter, particularly the finale of the love duet and the farewell aria "Addio, fiorito asil," he still managed to convince.
Bregenz is packed with Russian performers. Hopefully, artistic director Elisabeth Sobotka didn't force them to take a silly exam. Sobotka will become the new intendant of the Berlin State Opera after the summer of 2024. At that time, Der Freischütz will be on the stage directed by Philipp Stölzl. Who would want to miss "Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle" under the starry skies of Bregenz, sung by one of our contemporary Elisabeth Grümmers, even though the voice will once again sound from the speakers of Alwin Bösch and Clemens Wannemacher?