The Waiting: Madama Butterfly at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Puccini – Madama Butterfly

Cio-cio-san – Ermonela Jaho
BF Pinkerton – Charles Castronovo
Suzuki – Alisa Kolosova
Sharpless – Davide Luciano
Goro – J
ürgen Sacher
Lo zio Bonzo – Roman Chabaranok
Il Principe Yamadori – Sean Michael Plumb
Kate Pinkerton – Emily Sierra
Lo zio Yakusidé – Theodore Platt
Il commissario imperial – Andrew Hamilton

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Antonello Manacorda.
Stage director – Wolf Busse.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, Germany.  Sunday, June 5th, 2022.

The Bayerische Staatsoper does not always produce photographs of repertoire revvivals. Apologies for the lack of photographs with this review

There was an unmistakable buzz at the Bayerische Staatsoper for the performance of Madama Butterfly this evening.  It was a special under-30s performance, with discounted seats for the young, and consequently the audience was indeed younger and more diverse than one often sees here.  The roar of applause at the end was unmistakable.  That roar was absolutely justified because this was a truly splendid night at the opera, one that reminded us of why this is one of the greatest lyric theatres in the world – superlative singing, an orchestra on glorious form, and very well conducted. 

Wolf Busse’s staging, tonight revived by Bettina Göschl, is forty-nine years old.  It has clearly done a considerable amount of service for the house and has seen so many of the leading interpreters of their roles on Otto Stich’s sets over the years.  And yet, it does hark back to an earlier era, one where it was much more commonplace to have singers of European descent dress up in yellowface and simulate stereotyped Japanese movements.  While there was fortunately no yellowface on display tonight, the stereotyped movements were certainly present.  Butterfly is a problematic piece.  It’s one that deals with child sex tourism, with the commodification of women, and with US imperialism.  There is something extremely problematic in listening to lines such as ‘Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia, ora sei tutta mia’, fetishizing Butterfly’s orientalism and emphasizing Pinkerton’s desire to control her, set to the most gloriously soaring music.  And yet, this is also a piece that deals with the innate desire for hope of love, for wanting to make a better life, and the ultimate devastation that comes with a realization that that future is impossible. 

It is testament to the power of the performances of Ermonela Jaho in the title role and Charles Castronovo as Pinkerton that this journey was utterly believable.  Castronovo’s Pinkerton was dashing, but also clearly someone who was just in it for fun.  Jaho’s Butterfly commanded the stage by her total single-mindedness and belief that the future she had hoped for would come true.  That said, it does strike me that it’s time for the house to invest in a new staging, one that brings out the universality of the story without the clichés of a cast mainly of European descent pretending to be Japanese.  That said, it’s a tribute to Jaho’s power as an interpreter that she was able to transcend the staging and bring out Cio-cio-san’s humanity.

Indeed, tonight Jaho demonstrated why she is one of the most sought-after interpreters of this part today.  The voice has a silvery core, seemingly light and floating on the air, yet focused enough to carry through the house.  She made her character vulnerable and trusting, yet with an inner strength and single-mindedness that were inspirational.  Her ‘un bel dì’ was infinitely moving because Jaho used the text to create a sense of total belief that Pinkerton would return and their life together would resume, even though we knew it wouldn’t.  Similarly, Jaho found so much emotion, both through the text and the musical line, in the way she said goodbye to her son.  The lady in the row in front of me was sobbing uncontrollably, and I have no doubt that there wasn’t a single dry eye in the house.  Jaho tonight gave us a masterclass in how to create and maintain a character and in mining emotion. 

Castronovo, in this his debut run in the role, gave us a handsomely-sung Pinkerton.  His tenor is instantly recognizable, with that trademark captivating warmth and impeccable musicianship.  The voice was under total control this evening, opening up thrillingly on top with muscular ease.  Pinkerton is an exceptionally difficult character to bring to life, given how dreadful he is in Act 1, and yet Castronovo really managed to bring out that character’s callousness, while at the same time giving us the Puccinian warmth of line that the music needs.  The remorse that he felt in Act 3 was brought to life with shattering immediacy, particularly through using the text to colour the line.

Alisa Kolosova gave us a Suzuki of heartfelt consolation.  Her mezzo is juicy at the bottom, filling the house with a warm and generous glow.  Davide Luciano sang Sharpless in an extremely handsome and firm baritone, always fully sung and never resorting to hector.  He also made so much of the text, the clarity of his diction allowing us to truly appreciate Sharpless’s journey and wish to make a bad situation better.  Jürgen Sacher sang Goro in an insinuating, sandy tenor, focused in tone, while Sean Michael Plumb was luxury casting as Yamadori, bringing a poetic eloquence and beauty of line to his music.  The remainder of the extensive cast reflected the exceptional standards of the house, while Stellario Fagone’s chorus gave us a magical halo to the sound in the humming chorus.

Indeed, that chorus was a welcome moment of repose, led by Antonello Manacorda as a moment of nostalgia and longing.  Manacorda gave us a truly superb reading of the work.  The quality of playing and unanimity of approach that he achieved from the Bayerisches Staatsorchester was truly remarkable.  The strings played both with weight and feather lightness, portamenti elegantly and unanimously dispatched.  The orchestral eruption as Butterfly revealed Sorrow was utterly devastating.  Manacorda’s reading felt so utterly idiomatic and the orchestra responded as one to him.  Based on this evening, I would most certainly like to hear more Puccini from him.

Tonight was one of those very special evenings in the theatre.  We saw one of the greatest singing-actors of our time assume one of her signature roles, bringing her character to life right in front of our eyes.  We also saw one of the finest tenors around assume an important new role in his repertoire, singing it with warmth and generosity.  Combined with an exceptional ensemble cast and an orchestra on thrilling form, tonight really did deliver.  Yes, the production is dated and has some serious issues, but the cast transcended them and transported and moved us immensely.  The cast was received at the close with a huge and extended ovation. 

The Nationaltheater, home of the Bayerische Staatsoper © Wilfried Hösl

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