Monday, 9 March 2009

Madam Butterfly at the Grand Metropolitan New York

It is about ten years since I have experienced opera live, making special visit to the Opera House in Leeds for a performance of the Magic Flute. I cannot say that cost has prevented or lack of opportunity as Opera North, based in Leeds, performs regularly at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle and by coincidence the summer programme arrived in the post on Friday for the Theatre, revealing that three works are to be performed in English in June with prices from £35-£50, although in fact none of works appeal.
For the past three months Cineworld cinemas has relayed performances from the Metropolitan Opera House of New York at six pm on a Saturday evening, and when I saw that there was to be a Performance of Madam Butterfly on the weekend of my three score years and ten I decided to book a seat and attend without knowing what to expect from the relay although by coincidence I had seen a full performance of the opera on a satellite TV channel within the past year and switched on the radio earlier in the week as an established artist sang a few lines of “one fine Day” talked a little about the opera and her role and sang a few lines more, it was an auspicious omen.

Although booking six weeks beforehand the available seat was in the first row of auditorium banking with four rows in front after a wide space on the same level. Although not ideal therefore there was plenty of room to stretch legs and with the relay in High Definition there was no strain from the proximity to the screen. All seats were sold.

Before talking about the performance I must mention the nature of the relay where there was a sound connection to the Opera House before visual so one could hear the arrival of the patrons with their combined chatter and orchestra tuning up and then with a couple minutes to we looked on to the stage with a small countdown clock to the lower right hand corner. This was repeated during then two intervals for their middle section of 15 mins, either side of which there were behind the scenes interviews and films related to the opera and others to come and in the planned season for next Winter of nine relays The performance time is about 145 minutes plus the two half an hour intervals.

The short interviews included Cio Cio Patricia Racette, Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, the maid, and Marcello Giordani as Pinkerton and the widow of Mr Minghella as well as excerpts from an interview with Anthony about the production. All this together with subtitles and close ups as well as full stage shots created a memorable theatrical experience to what was an emotionally overwhelming experience because of the depth of acting and singing, the like of which I have not previously encountered.

The Metropolitan Association of New York was formed in 1880 and has become the biggest classical music organisation in the USA with over 200 performances a year. The Present Opera House, created in 1966 has one of the biggest stages and an auditorium with 3800 seats and is one of twelve cultural organisations which form the Lincoln Arts centre for Performing art. Because of the height of the stage it is not possible to show sub title translations as in the practice of many establishments so the solutions has been to create a small screen version before each seat which can be switched on or off and is designed not disturb those in adjacent seats. In addition to English the titles are available in French, Spanish, Italian and German depending on the opera and performance language

Luciano Pavarotti achieved world fame singing at the Met along with Placido Domingo and Renee Flemming who hosted the evening telecast.

Since 1931 it has broadcast a performance live each week and on TV on a regular basis since 1977. In 2006 the Opera commenced the Satellite transmission of live opera four times a week and then HD quality performance to cinemas throughout the world including the UK, the Far East and Australia. Although each production costs $1 million dollars to transmit such as been the interest in the live TV showings that there are more seats sold for these than for live performances at the theatre and the income generated now adds to that of the Opera House. Basic ticket prices range for $10 dollars to $375 for the average performance although up to £650 for a long Wagner, There are handling charges and house maintenance charges to these. It is now possible to listen to radio broadcasts direct for the Met, there is one tonight available on the internet. It is also possible to take out an annual, six monthly or monthly subscription to be able see on line 150 previous productions going back half a century on an unlimited basis, or pay to see individual works, including some of those recently shown on HD.

A major development during my lifetime is the open stage on which the performers are secreted or appear during the second that the auditorium and stage is cast in total darkness. Gone is the solid fire safety “curtain” and swing across curtains. For Butterfly, as the orchestra played an overture, Minghella adopted blackness and then a young dancer/mime artist, representing Butterfly, the young Geisha girl, came down stairs from the back of the theatre to create the illusion of a hill with black clothed and veiled mime artists in attendance unravelling swathes of cloth from around her waist and also introducing the use of puppets, and in particular the use of a puppet to represent the subsequent three year old son of Cio Cio San.

The story of Butterfly is one of the best known of all Opera’s along with Bizet’s Carmen and which because of the Spanish setting was the first to which I was introduced by my birth mother who also introduced to Swan Lake, the Tchaikovsky Ballet.

Originally a short story by John Luther Long in 1898 it was made into a stage play by David Belasco It is understood the core events of the opera took place in Nagasaki in the early 1890’s. The original version of the opera was in two acts and opened at La Scala Milan in 1904. This was not a great success and Puccini re wrote as three acts and continued to make different versions, five in total with the last in 1907. It was first performed in England in 1905 and New York in 1906 in English.

Cio Cio San, is a fifteen year old innocent Japanese Geisha girl in the port city of Nagasaki who has been the older Lieutenant in the USA Navy on a visit, desires her but finds in order to have sexual relations he must agree to a marriage formally arranged by a local marriage broker and the American Consul. He hires a traditional Japanese house overlooking the harbour on a lease and agrees to participating in a wedding ceremony according to Japanese custom and which involves relatives and Geisha girl friends. The house is rented along with servants including a maid Suzuki, who Minghella has turned into the second important role, of even greater significance to Pinkerton.
Unlike the majority of the girls who understand the impact of being a Geisha on the rest of their lives, Suzuki comes from a wealthy family of standing who have fallen on hard time, and waiting in the wings is a young Japanese warrior of good birth wanting to marry her. The American Consul , the marriage broker and Pinkerton are all aware that the wedding ceremony is a fa├žade to enable him to enjoy the experience of the young woman while he is in port, and that whatever he says or promises he has no intention of returning or establishing a permanent relationship. He admits his love em and leave him, a girl in every port, approach, the Consul who warns, from his knowledge of the girl that she is likely to put all her trust in him and take the marriage seriously. Pinkerton notes that the contract can be terminated by him at any time without notice or penalty. To appreciate the situation it is important to appreciate the cultural and language divide between the two, and the role of the Geisha in Japanese society at that time.

A major in ingredient to the first act is that Madam Butterfly as she has become is that in order to adapt and fit into her husband’s life she has gone to the local mission to become a Christian thus alienating herself for her uncle, the Bonze(Buddhist Monk) who is also one of her uncles and from her other relatives. This is where Suzuki quickly becomes her confident, mother figure and ally. Cio Cio San has had some education and on being told that she is as beautiful as a butterfly by Pinkerton she responds from knowledge that some men in the West collect Butterflies destroy Butterflies to which Pinkerton explains that they do pin them so as to stop them flying away.

Minghella has divided the second act into two parts, which the usual way the Opera is presented in order to achieve maximum dramatic effect. In the first part of the second act three years have passed and Butterfly has remained constant in love and expectation that what he said about returning was truthful and she spends time taking note of the arrivals in the port from her vantage point in the hillside. Suzuki is loyal but sceptical and tries to help her to be more realistic especially as their money begins to run out. The marriage broker brings the young warrior who wants to marry her despite the relationship she has had with the American. She sends them both away.

Pinkerton’s ship returns and she is full of expectations and commences to make preparations and the Consul arrives with a letter which queries whether Butterfly remembers him and which goes on to explain that he has married and American girl and therefore will not be in a position to see her. Such is her enthusiasm and expectation that the Consul is unable to explain this, especially when Butterfly introduces him to her son of three years. The consul goes off to inform Pinkerton that he has a mixed race looking son. The two women and the boy sit overlooking the harbour and roadway up the hill for the arrival of the husband, accompanied by the humming chorus. Earlier in the this second part Butterfly has sung one of the most famous if not the most famous, arias of belief and hope, One Fine day “Un Bel di”

In the second part, Butterfly goes to bed having waited up all night and Pinkerton, his wife and the Consul arrive early to speak to the maid in the absence to ask her to break the new to Butterfly. Although devastated and heartbroken for her mistress Suzuki agrees, but when the child is seen and the position changes again with the decision to take the boy with them because of the better life which can be provided. Pinkerton consumed with guilt at what he has done cannot cope with the situation and goes off leaving his wife and the Consul talking with Suzuki but before they can leave Butterfly arrives and immediately senses correctly what is going on. She agrees to hand over the child on condition that Pinkerton comes in person for him. As he approaches she commit suicide using the knife which her father used, “to die with honour.”

The approach of Mr Mingella (who Directed Truly Madly Deeply1990 and won an Oscar for The English Patient 1996, and he Talented Mr Ripley 1999, also Produced Iris 2001, The Quiet American 2005, Michael Clayton 2007 and The Reader in 2008) was to encourage the singers to emphasise the emotional and dramatic, and as a consequence to pare down the set to essentials sot hat the focus is on the singers. This approach meant that those of us watching on screen with the close ups were at an advantage and able to appreciate the emotional involvement and depth of the principal performances. Dwayne Croft, a baritone, has sung 3000 performances in twenty productions for the Met was convincing as the diplomat, attempting to ensure Pinkerton understood what he was doing and showing great compassion for the plight of Butterfly. As Pinkerton, the Sicilian born Marcello Giordiani also commanded and impressed for his ability to communicate his role as an irresponsible paedophile who is confronted with the reality of his behaviour and exposed as a coward. Over the past twenty years he has created a repertoire of 40 of the great operas and has performed in the leading opera Houses in the world and in the United States. In 1994 he developed vocal problems which imperilled his career until he re-established himself after retraining his voice. He has sung of 170 performance with the Met.

For me the second outstanding performance of the evening was that of Maria Zifchak, mezzo soprano, who is a winner of the Metropolitan Young Performer award which led to her appearing as Mrs Pinkerton in a previous production of the opera at the Met in 2001. She is known to have played Suzuki for at least the past five and is scheduled to do so again during the rest of this year at other Opera houses in he USA and again in 2010. She communicated brilliantly the role of a servant who becomes a confident, supporter and protector of Butterfly, devastated by the course of the events. The interaction between her performance and the extraordinary Patricia Racette, who has surely now given the most emotional performance of any in the title role. She explained in interview that she gave over her life emotionally to her roles cutting herself off from everyone and she is reportedly known for dismissing those who want to discuss her performances and opera in technical terms, by asking them he question but how does it make you feel. She also joked about the difficulty of playing a girl half an age, when in fact she is 43/44, but all her movements and facial expression were that of such a young woman. In 2002 she made public her sexual orientation, marrying fellow opera diva Beth Clayton in 2005.There are two other aspects of this extraordinary experience which I need to mention. I had reservations about the use of a puppet for the three year old tried. This was a decision taken early on by Mr Minghella because the use of a child of such a young age has always created a distraction for the singers. The cinema watchers throughout her world were able to see that the puppet was manipulated by three veiled mine artists dressed in black and veiled but in close we could that the showed on their faces the emotions they were attempting to communicate through the puppet. I was won over.The widow of Anthony Minghella was also interviewed and was invited on stage for the curtain call. Dressed in black herself she added to the emotion of the evening. The curtain call was as stunning as the rest of the production with the performance appearing down the slope looking steps and they moved off stage as suddenly and slowly Madam Butterfly herself appeared, replicating what had happened during the overture and audience in the theatre rose up from their seats to greet her. At the cinema there had been a magnificent stunned silence when the opera ended and everyone stayed in their seats to enjoy the curtain calls. I thought out silence and our awe was more fitting an immediate response to that of the applause and cheers at of he Opera House, although I also thought that having recovered composure with many taking a handkerchief to their faces it would have also been good if we two had give a clap and a cheer where Ms Racette came forward.I have an inexpensive 2 CD record of the opera and a single Long Play record of Madam Butterfly as well as full recording of Puccini’s Turandot with Placido Domingo and the orchestra conducted by Herbert Von Karajan as well as a recording of Bizet Carmen, as well as compilations of arias ranging from a 2 CD edition of the recordings of Beniamino Gigli to the three tenors and Maria Callas, but I have never previously been moved by an individual work or performance as I was on Saturday evening. I understood why some individuals spend their whole lives trying to capture and then repeat such an experience. It has taken me as close 70 years as is possible and to have done so once is a blessing.

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