When it was announced that Teatro La Fenice was going to perform "Madama Butterfly" in Beijing, I did not hesitate for a moment to go and watch it. The National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) was a beautiful framework for this new operatic production, a big theatre with a very good acoustic designed precisely for operatic performances .
I am just an Opera fan, I would say quite a rudimentary one, and this piece by Puccini is a "not to be missed" for any fan. Being a theater person as I am, a lover of the avant-garde and exploration, I have always been opposed to the limited “Theatrical” progress or evolution in this Performing Art, and many times I have been uncomfortable with some of the ways Opera creators use to modernize the genre. I admire those moments in the history of the Opera when novelty and change arrived: Haendel, Wagner “La Opera Realista”, the postmodernist, Stanislavski’s search for a real Opera actor, but I also love to keep many Operas as they were created and for what they were created. In the end, Opera is like Ballet, a codified genre that served the needs of one determined artistic time in history; opera allows us to see with its own codification an Ariosto represented almost as it was in past centuries, or repeating a Verdi Opera in a Venice premiere.
I was telling a friend, who likes to listen to Opera but not going to see it performed, that in fact my only love for Opera was listening to it "live" as a spectator, that is, listening to it live and not being afraid to bear loads of absurd situations and actions, terrible drama-scripts and interminable tedium only for the fact that music is there and I can listen to those voices in front of me. But deep in me I always keep the hope of seeing a show that makes me feel like I am really in front of a high quality stage event and makes me keep it forever in my memory. Hope is hope. Well, it was not the case with this production of La Fenice.
Putting aside the always high-quality voice and music in a company like this (1), which I enjoyed immensely, the production in general had, from my point of view, many problems: I felt that a too modern minimalist Scandinavian-Japanese style scenography (with use of perspective) just helped to throw away the "realistic" game one of the most classic operas by Puccini has (no bridge, no hill, no sun, no vegetation, but a very modern Japanese style room...); it helped also to miss a large part of the “melodrama” that gives to the history its grandeur, an absurd history itself, with an orgy of misconnected bizarre names and many very ignorant concepts about Oriental culture, but within a melodramatic codification that wakes the spectator’s passions up and makes him love and suffer with the main characters.
I have myself already adapted to the excesses of the costumes and makeup of Japanese male characters that appear in this Opera, it seems a non written rule in all productions. The current version was no exception, with ridiculous costumes with fantastic motifs taken from Kabuki or even Chinese Opera’s fantastic characters. I can’t imagine how Chinese spectators felt when they saw this kind of costumes, maybe they simply did not notice, maybe it was just another crazy-Western-thing.
This time, Butterfly, her body, was suffering from weakness, with what seemed Japanese coldness, her movements were kind of robotic (some of my old acting teachers would say “cutting off air”), and with only one scene, in my point of view, to remember: Butterfly decides to wait with her child for the arrival of Pinkerton, who was known to have returned to Japan: beautiful and soft music played, filled with a sense of loneliness and powerlessness, and the director made us feel an Oriental style suffering, with the characters seated on their knees behind a translucent blue screen, without any action, just waiting.
The end of the Opera had a curious change, which is important to mention: Who does not remember that Butterfly dies because she commits "harakiri" in an act of desperation, totally lost without a husband and giving her child over to him? Well, this time, the director Daniele Abbado, in an apparent breakdown of genius (or mulishness?) makes Butterfly die in what would be a heart attack... Yes. Come on! she dies because of the impression: The woman was going to stab herself with the knife when suddenly her child comes, she forgets the knife, sings her last aria, the child leaves the room, and she dies of despair in the middle of the scene of some sort of attack, then her body lies on the floor in a simile of a butterfly that has been nailed by a pin.
Why not let her die as she "should die"? Everyone loves the harakiri, who will remember an ending like this?... I mean, who will remember it well?
Anyway ... Here are two videos showing those two endings: the first one is the death of Butterfly by heart attack in the performance I saw but recorded in Italy a month ago; and the second one is a filmed version of the classic Opera with the usual death by harakiri.
Video: Butterfly dies of a heart attack. Teatro La Fenice (2009)
Video: Butterfly dies by "harakiri". Old filmed version.
(1) It was announced a Chinese great singer in one of the three performances, but in that I went to see played a singer from La Fenice's Company.