Les pêcheurs de perles (25 June, 2013)
Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci (28 July 2013)
Madama Butterfly (29 June 2013)
Is Opera Holland Park losing some of its adventurousness? Of the five productions in the 2013 season the only excursion into unfamiliar territory was Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s I gioielli della Madonna (1911). The remain- ing offerings – Madama Butterfly, L’elisir d’amore, Les pêcheurs de perles (the only non-Italian work), and the almost inseparable duo of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci – amount to a stable of old warhorses so well- run that it requires imaginative staging and inspired musical interpretation to avoid cantering through the paces. Two of the three performances wit- nessed above did just enough to escape that; the other achieved quite a bit more.
To describe Les pêcheurs de perles as an old warhorse is not quite right, but the opera’s most famous number ‘Au fond du temple saint’, the friendship duet for tenor and baritone, has become so well-known via its famous 1951 recording by Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill that even audiences hearing the opera for the first time greet it like a lost friend of their own. In fact, the duet as we know it belongs to an 1893 production of the opera, staged thirty years after the first performance, which the conductor Matthew Waldren refers to in a programme note as a ‘souped-up new version which basi- cally had been Carmenised.’ Bizet’s death in 1875, three months after the première of Carmen, proved a well-timed career move, for in the wake of that opera’s belated international triumph it gave his earlier works (none of which had been overly successful) a new lease of life. Among these, how- ever, only Pêcheurs has kept a secure place in the repertory.
The Holland Park production was full of colour, both visual and orches- tral. Costumes and lighting combined strikingly with the huge orange sheet which served as a multi-purpose mobile set operated by pulleys to create a sail; a tent; a storm; the waves of the sea. Waldren drew attractive play- ing from the City of London Sinfonia and the singing was serviceable, if hardly inspired. As Nadir, the tenor Jung Soo Yun made a better job of the perilously high vocal line in his Act 1 aria (tenderly recalling his early love for Leila) than he did the famous duet, where his voice sounded several shades lighter than that of Zurga, sung with authority but uneven vocal- ism by Grant Doyle. As the priestess Leila, the object of the two men’s rival affections, Soula Parassidis was less successful than Doyle at scaling down her voice when singing with the tenor, but her clean, attractive tone suited the role well. Enjoyable enough, the production ultimately failed to persuade that this was an opera worth seeing all that often.
The perennial pairing of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci received im- aginative, though not wholly successful direction, from Stephen Barlow. The imagination lay in a provocative attempt to link the operas together visually and meta-theatrically. Updated to 1944 and 1974 respectively, Cavalleria was backed by a huge block of stacked wooden crates, taking over two-thirds of the stage, which were replaced by a similar stack of blue plastic creates for Pagliacci. In a more daring move, the music to Pagliacci opened to the scene just witnessed at the end of Cavalleria, with the cuck- olded Alfio standing over the dead body of Turiddu. Stephen Gadd, who sang Alfio in the first opera, proceeded to step over the body and morph into the character of Tonio in Pagliacci, changing his clothes while singing the Prologue (the aria where Tonio – or the baritone singing Tonio? – ad- dresses the audience, telling them what they are about to see is not acting but a slice of real life). A neat conceit, but one that served only to confirm how much more convincing as drama is Leoncavallo’s tragicomedy of re- venge than Mascagni’s story of Sicilian lust. The problem with Cavalleria is that it lacks clear dramatic focus, the emphasis shifting from Santuzza’s betrayal by Turridu (a back story we slowly absorb) and her ostracising by the villagers, to the emotional mania of Turridu himself. His swift transi- tion into social outcast and even swifter execution at the hands of Alfio counts for little when he has emerged through the opera as nothing more than a feeble philanderer. Barlow turned the opera into a tawdry and turgid demonstration of coarse Sicilian appetites – Turridu’s serenade to Lola (Al- fio’s wife), which interrupts the prelude and is usually sung off-stage, was here delivered from Lola’s bed and presented as an interruption to coital pleasure. There was spitting and biting, and even the scene in Church was played with an undercurrent of sensuality.
The best vocal performance came from Gweneth-Ann Jeffers who con- vincingly brought out Santuzza’s anguished sense of rejection. Peter Auty’s Turridu was restricted by a tonally pressed top. He was more comfortable as Canio in Pagliacci, delivering the opera’s most famous number ‘Vesti la gi- ubba’ with firm, anguished tone and raging magnificently in the murderous final scene. This was an altogether happier affair, with a more straightfor- ward production, an effective presentation of the play-within-the-play se- quence, and some fine vocal performances, notably from Chang-Han Lim, a young South Korean with a beautifully burnished baritone, who raised the temperature with his portrayal of Silvio, the illicit lover of Canio’s wife.
If these two nights only prodded the mind and ear, the performance of Madama Butterfly ought to have provoked the audience into thinking dif- ferently about a work that, even in a routine performance, rarely fails to come across as anything less than Puccini’s finest opera. The fiasco of the work’s premiere in Milan on 17 February 1904 is the stuff of operatic leg- end. Having waited frustratedly for a viable subject for a composition to succeed Tosca, Puccini threw himself into a libretto based on a play he had seen in London in 1900 by the American playwright David Belasco. The details of the disastrous first performance – the silence that greeted the opening scene; the increasing unrest at what the audience took to be a musi- cal recycling of La Boheme; the likelihood that a claque had been installed by a clutch of jealous rival composers – have been much documented. In truth, it was an one-off. Just three months later a revised version of the opera triumphed in Brescia followed quickly by a successful production in Buenos Aires conducted by Arturo Toscanini. In the succeeding two years the opera was played to acclaim in London, Cairo, Naples, and across the United States. Milan had proved an aberration.
One of the revisions Puccini undertook to the original performance for the Brescia production was to divide the final act into two, returning to the initial three-act structure planned for the opera. During original composi- tion he had become convinced that the drama should be presented in two long acts, telling his publisher Giulio Ricordi: ‘the action must move for- ward to the close without interruption, rapid, effective, terrible! … With this arrangement I am sure of holding my public, and not sending them away disappointed. And we shall have at the same time a new division of opera’. The conservative Milanese public were not ready for such things, however. In the revised three-act version the curtain falls at the end of the flower duet, Cio-Cio San having seen Pinkerton’s ship arrive in the harbour from her house on the hill. An orchestral Intermezzo depicts the passing of the night before the curtain rises on the same scene with dawn breaking and Cio-Cio San still anxiously awaiting Pinkerton’s arrival. Devoid of the use of a curtain, Paul Higgins’s Holland Park production ran the two acts together. The Intermezzo, with its urgent forward propulsion, played to Cio-Cio San left alone on a darkened stage. The return to Puccini’s original structure was dramatically convincing, as was much in this unfussy, visu- ally sparse production.
Butterfly, of course, offers considerable scope for elegant set design and costuming evocative of its Japanese setting. Yet, for all its emotional tur- bulence, it is an intimate opera, the action taking place entirely indoors and the drama unfolding through conversation, narrative and reported events. Neil Irish’s minimalist designs for this production were austere to the point of blankness. On a raised stage a series of black screens without embel- lishment blocked out the façade of the country house (expedient in some operas, an encumbrance here). The only furniture was a chair in Butterfly’s house; the only props of note the obligatory (red) petals showered from above during the flower duet, fateful dagger and star-spangled banner. This was a production that compelled its audience to focus on stage movement (expertly choreographed by movement director Namiko Gahier-Ogawa) and the musical articulation of the text.
In the right hands Butterfly is a work of considerable complexity, and in the right throats one capable of administering a shattering emotional experi- ence. Interpreters of the title role have to make a decision whether to play the character as essentially innocent, coy or knowing. A test of their inten- tions arises in Act 2 when Cio-Cio San asks Sharpless, the American con- sul, how the robins make their nests in America. Pinkerton has promised to return when the robin builds his nest; here he has done so three times already, she says, but perhaps over there he nests less frequently? Goro, the marriage broker, standing at the side of the stage, laughs. (Some audience members at Holland Park, insensitive to the point, laughed too). Butterfly turns and intones ‘Chi ride?’ – ‘Who’s laughing?’ a phrase through which it is impossible for a singer not to convey a clear impression of whether But- terfly is hopelessly deluded or whether her delusion is something of an act, part of her way of exerting control over those around her. In this produc- tion the diminutive French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels rounds on Goro, articulating that short vital phrase as a stinging rebuke that tells of a woman only too aware that she has been forsaken.
What this performance enforced was that Butterfly does not have to be viewed simply as a study in self-delusion or the destruction of tragic in- nocence. There is another way of looking at this great work, one that sees the central character as a powerful figure of defiance, whose final suicide is neither an act of self-sacrifice nor the fateful outcome of tragedy. This, after all, is a character bold enough to renounce her religion; strong enough to beat and threaten to kill the marriage broker when he tries to sell her off to a new suitor; witty enough to mock that suitor, a man who has had many divorces but who hypocritically swears constancy to Cio-Cio San. Duprel’s portrayal of the role underlined these characteristics, her dominat- ing vocal and dramatic presence accentuating just how much Cio-Cio San controls and commands the stage, even if she cannot control and command the drama. In this reading the emotional heart of the opera is not ‘Un Bel dì’ – Cio-Cio San’s wishful re-enactment of Pinkerton’s return – which, after all, is sung as a comforting gesture to her servant Suzuki, but the mo- ment when she tells Sharpless that it would be better to die than return to her life as a geisha. The character’s background is the key to understand-ing why she chooses to believe so fully in her fantasy of Pinkerton’s faith. Cio-Cio San is a proud young woman, whose well-to-do family fell into poverty forcing her as a girl into becoming a paid entertainer of men. Mar- riage to Pinkerton is her way out of a trade which she believes leads only to dishonour (‘Questo mestier che al disonore porta!’). Her expression of defiance in this scene, addressed to her son whose presence she has just unfurled upon Sharpless, is set against heavy orchestration. It demands a true dramatic weight to the soprano voice and sweeps away any sugges- tion that the character should be played as a fragile, fluttering ‘butterfly’. Duprel’s performance here and elsewhere was magnificent, and though the supporting cast was more mixed, and the conductor Manlio Benzi inclined to push too hard in places, her easy assumption of Puccini’s considerable vocal demands enabled her to convey an interpretation of the role that left the artistic importance of this work unquestioned.