What an intense experience the evening was! There most certainly were a few wet eyes in the audience, including my own…Puccinis opera is one of the pieces that was on my list of operas to go and see – Jutta Vulpius sang the role of Cho Cho San back in the 1950 and having seen pictures of her in costume I was always intrigued. When I saw that it was on the schedule, including an Insights event as well it was the time to get that tick of the list.
Whilst it fundamentally is a very typical sort of story line – pretty young girl meets foreign man, gets married, he goes away, she has child and someone dies in the end… yet especially with this opera it is worth to dig a little deeper into the background and the story behind the opera. During the Insights author Lesley Downer gave a brief introduction the the real Butterfly. Of course all that information can be found online it you do extensive research into the particular opera but it is much more interesting to have it presented to you by the experts themselves. Ermonela Jaho was also present and spoke a little about the role of Butterfly. Jaho is a rather petit person but she was so passionate about the role which was a delight to see so I was very much looking forward to seeing her in action. Prepared with the necessary background knowledge curtains went up on the performance.
Whilst I have heard small excerpts of the opera over the years I never conciously registered it. Pappano certainly does know how to get the orchestra of the Royal Opera House to produce a fascinating and all enveloping sound – musically it was another treat. Plus I love the seats up with gods on the sides where you can look into the pitch the whole time…
The stage setting was simple but very beautiful and efficient. It was mentioned that the emphasis was on putting the human drama centre stage. This certainly worked for me! You saw basically a room with various ways in and parts of the wall being moved up and down – a very basic scene to look at but it definitely exposed the intensity that was happening.
Marcelo Puente, Mr Pinkerton, was rather pleasant to look at! He also sang an aria at the Insights event and whilst sometimes the soloist are not necessarily optically attractive he most definitely looked the part. This was the debut of this Argentinian tenor at the Royal Opera House. I personally liked his voice and timbre a lot even though there were remarks that he was not quite up to scratch. His potrayal of the fun loving young Lieutenant who was later plagued by regrets was very convincing – he did get a few boos amongst the applause from the audience which were more aimed at his character.
One of the standout performers of the evening was Elizabeth DeShong. The debuting Mezzo sang the role of Suzuki, Butterflys maid. I admit, I have a very soft spot for mezzos and am therefore potentially a little biased but her voice just blew me away! Such a warm tone and depth! Sometimes mezzos are missing the oomph especially in the lower registers – certainly not DeShong! If anything her voice got even more vibrant the lower she sang. Yet, she also has sparkly heights! She certainly was a revelation and hopefully I will get the chance to see her again in another production somewhere.
The toughest role of the night was, no doubt, the one of Cio Cio San herself. She was on stage for the entire opera! Albanian born Ermonela Jaho is of a very petite stature and therefore the perfect casting for the role of this young Japanese girl. Her voice was very powerful and expressive. You could see that she had totally emersed herself into this role. Especially within the last 30 to 40 minutes of the opera you could really feel what an epic decision this young girl had to make. Puccini saw her as a 15 year old girl when she met and married Pinkerton. Therefore she is 18 at the end of the opera with a child around 2 years of age. Keeping this in mind it really is very tragic character. After the curtain lifted for the singers to take their bows Jaho was just getting up from the floor after her death scene – she was still breathing very heavily and you could see that she was almost still in character. This must be such a monumental opera for her and so emotionally draining. Yet, this is what makes the portrayal so realistic – as I mentioned before – I had to get the tissues out at the end! Kudos also to the litte boy, Paul Benkert, who played Cio Cio Sans child. It certainly can’t be easy to explain him just enough that he understands what is going on but not too much that he is scarred for life, though it needs to be mentioned that he is a lot older than the actual age of Butterfly’s child.
The opera itself was premiered in 1904 – so also a relatively young opera. Looking at it from a 2017 perspective it doesn’t only show the tragedy but also the strong cultural differences. With the world becoming more and more globalised people are exposed to different cultures more often. Of course it is a lot easier nowadays to get around – doubt you’d be waiting for a lover to return for 3 years these days… but still there is that element of different cultural upbringing and the inevitable clashes this will bring… I have a lot of friends all over the world and have had some interesting experiences with different cultures and sometimes you just need to remind yourself that people might not be rude in what they are doing but that it is just normal for them. Therefore the character of Pinkerton as the brash American Lieutenant will of course have an effect on this shy, traditional Japanese girl. Resulting from their different upbringings and friends circles they will also interpret their feelings for each other differently. Butterfly is giving up her whole life as she has known it until then whilst Pinkerton is just after a bit of fun. This dramatic account leaves one with a lot of food for thought…