A straightforward production allows heavenly singing to take centre stage in Ted Huffman’s white box staging of Madama Butterfly at Zurich Opera.
Zurich Opera House is one of the great gems of the world opera scene. Grandly situated lakeside, it holds pride of place in the city, with a massive public space stretching out before it. The highly ornate, gilded music box interior boasts superb acoustics and a stunning chandelier that the Phantom of the Opera would surely love to get his dastardly hands on.
Maestro Daniele Rustioni conducts the Philharmonia Zürich in a splendid performance that emphasis the dynamics of Puccini’s treasured score to great dramatic effect.
As the overture progresses, the curtain rises on a vast white space. Servants deliver a suite of western furniture to the home that is to be the love nest of Lieutenant Pinkerton and his young “bride” Cio-Cio-san (knowns as Madam Butterfly). By representing the rice paper house with towering sheer white walls, designer Michael Levine provides a clean, stark canvas upon which the intimate action can unfold.
Lighting designer Franck Evin utilises the white walls to cast giant shadows and to allow light from “outdoors” to flood across the room when the rear wall is partially rolled open.
The storyline of Madama Butterfly is, of course, completely egregious by current standards, but, as a great work of art, it cannot be disregarded. Director Huffman brings a sensitive approach, completely playing down the role of the men as sexual predators. Pinkerton is seen as a sensitive, reserved character. With no sense of salacious intent in the “wedding,” Pinkerton’s main feeling seems to be modest embarrassment at the scope of the ceremony. Likewise, Sharpless is a sympathetic man, and expresses deep sorrow when reading Pinkerton’s letter to Butterfly and Suzuki. In short, to enjoy this music, we have this story that goes with it, and Huffman makes it as palatable as possible.
Act two opens on a barer stage, Suzuki and Butterfly having clearly had to sell the rug, the painting and other items to survive. Without altering the outcome, Huffman changes the blocking for the opera’s final moment to create a heart-stopping climax.
Against the stark white walls and floor, Annemarie Woods’ costumes stand out in their detail and realism. The geishas wear gorgeous, intricately embroidered kimonos, and Cio-Cio-san’s bustled European dress is as handsome as it is significant in reflecting the desperate young woman’s state of mind.
In superb voice, Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu gives an outstanding performance as Pinkerton, an achievement all the more notable given that this season marks his debut in the role . Looking every bit the physically fit, upright naval captain, Pirgu brings a deliberately understated presence to the role, clearly conveying the sense that Pinkerton is somewhat overwhelmed by the circumstances. Pirgu’s voice rings out with thrilling intensity; his rendition of “Dovunque al mundo” the best I have ever heard, and I found myself anticipating his return almost as keenly as Butterfly was awaiting the return of Pinkerton.
As Cio-Cio-san, Svetlana Aksenova is, of course, running a marathon rather than a sprint. In a carefully calibrated performance, Aksenova produces a consistently strong and pure sound with seemingly little effort. Her voice soars in soars beautifully in “Un bel di vedremo.” An accomplished actress, Aksenova commands the stage in acts two and three as Butterfly clings to her dream against an onslaught of challenges.
Aksenova and Pirgu enjoy solid chemistry and sound glorious together. Their act one love duet seems to flit by in seconds.
Judith Schmid, as Cio-Cio-san’s devoted friend Suzuki, really comes into her own when playing Suzuki’s grief upon the realisation that Butterfly‘s dream is dead. Schmid and Aksenova’s exquisite harmonies in “Il canon del porto!” (The Flower Duet) are another vocal highlight of the evening.
Brian Mulligan’s powerful bass baritone is a real luxury in the supporting role of US Consul Sharpless. Mulligan’s vocal power is an well-matched counterpoint for Pirgu’s strength in act one.
World class opera at its best, Madama Butterfly is expertly realised and magnificently sung.
Madama Butterfly plays its final performance of the season at Opernhaus Zürich on 10 January 2018.
Photos: Toni Suter