A Madama Butterfly like this wings its way into town once in a lifetime
By Giacomo Puccini. A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, May 29. Continues June 1, 3, 5, 8, and 10
If you think you’ve been there, done that with Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, take note: it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen or heard one like this, or that you ever will again.
The Vancouver Opera is closing its golden-anniversary season in high drama, with a production that’s not just a visual feast—a giant, constantly shifting piece of contemporary art—but boasts the kind of vocal star power you’d expect to see on one of the world’s more famous stages.
Japanese-American sculptor and ceramicist Jun Kaneko’s stunning production design utterly reinvents an opera usually rendered in the oriental exotica all the rage in Puccini’s day. The sets are deceptively simple, sleek as a Mondrian but striking and textured: a rainbow of coloured streamers suddenly unfurls from the sky for the marriage scene, and a huge, painted golden moon slowly rises on a screen during the rapturous, 20-minute love duet between American naval lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and his temporary bride Cio-Cio-San.
Amazingly, the design never overpowers the music or the cast, led by a Madama who earned a long and adoring standing ovation from an audience in a city that isn’t exactly known for jumping to its feet. Japanese soprano Mihoko Kinoshita is earning a reputation as one of the best Butterflies in the world, and her VO debut made it clear why. She mixes flawless singing with the kind of emotion that isn’t just felt, but lived, and yet she couches it all in a polite reserve that’s perfect for turn-of-the-last-century Nagasaki.
There’s not a weak spot in the cast: as Pinkerton, James Valenti has a silkily mellifluous, made-for-Puccini tenor. He brings just enough youthful sexual swagger and carefree attitude to the first act, and transforms into a remorseful wreck by the end. Baritone Jeff Mattsey’s Sharpless, the American consul who warns Pinkerton against trifling with the lovelorn Cio-Cio-San, brings the role more power than usual, scorching the stage with scorn in the second act. And as Butterfly’s servant Suzuki, sweet-voiced mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao pulls off a transcendent “Flower Song” with her mistress.
Covered in lush cherry blossoms, paper lanterns, and kimono silk, Madama Butterfly’s tragedy can sometimes seem overwrought, but not here. Centring everything on simple repeating ovals, stripes, grids, and primary colours, Kaneko’s set helps offset that clichéd feeling, even as the patterns subtly reference everything from traditional Japanese screens to calligraphy strokes. Rather than just coming up with static visual art, he’s devised ways to make the set move: instead of singing from offstage, the opening act’s geishas circle down on a curving ramp, decked out in geometrically patterned kimonos and carrying stylized, round parasols. Kaneko has thought long and hard about colour too. From that fantastical multihued world we work slowly to a bleak, all-black-and-white final act, when the music becomes more hard and 20th-century. About the only misstep is Pinkerton’s slightly clownish costumes.
Kaneko’s most brilliant innovation is the Bunraku-style shadow puppeteers. Black-clad, box-headed figures, they not only move about furniture and props but, under Leslie Swackhamer’s clever direction, also become sinister shadows of death, lurking ominously at key moments.
Despite the high tragedy, the whole night felt balanced. Can Italian opera approach anything like Zen? Probably not, but the Jonathan Darlington–led orchestra knew just when to pump up the Puccini passion on the drums and horns, and when to soften up the strings for Kinoshita’s more delicate moments.
The key to this Madama Butterfly is that the music and the design become one, and nowhere is that more evident than in the devastating ending, after that ridiculously famous aria in which a mother says goodbye to a child. I won’t give away how it’s staged in case you’re lucky enough to score tickets, but trust me, it’s unforgettable. Pooh-pooh the melodrama of Puccini all you want: this finale’s stark, artful vision—a striking abstraction of nation and blood—not to mention Kinoshita’s restrained strength in rendering it, will destroy you. You’ve been warned.