Wiener Staatsoper Review: Madame Butterfly

Puccini's Madama Butterfly or Madame Butterfly is, unquestionably, one of opera's most beloved tales. In many ways it seems fairly straightforward to produce. The snags come, however, in the way the emotional content must be communicated. The first act culminating in "Vogliatemi, bene," and the opening "Un bel dí vedremo" of the second act must create enough passionate, romantic tension to hold through the entirety of the second act (with the important exception, perhaps, of the revelation of her son) and most of the third act to the point of Pinkerton's return and ultimate betrayal. Most of the actual time of the opera is spent waiting, and unless the anticipation sets up an electric feeling of suspense, that waiting can be very boring.

This production by the Staatsoper was billed as being in two acts. I am not an expert on the various revisions Puccini did to Madame Butterfly and I cannot say whether it was simply billed this way because the first and second/third acts were separated by intermission and the Staatsoper had the historical precedent to say so, or if this is actually an unusual production of the first version, rather than the later standard version. Nonetheless, general information, synopsis, and cast list:

General information & synopsis:


|Giacomo Puccini

  • Patrick Lange | Dirigent
  • Josef Gielen | Regie
  • Tsugouharu Foujita | Bühnenbild
  • Tsugouharu Foujita | Kostüme
  • Daniela Dessi | Cio-cio-san, genannt Butterfly
  • Marian Talaba | B.F.Pinkerton
  • Eijiro Kai | Sharpless
  • Juliette Mars | Suzuki
  • Herwig Pecoraro | Goro
  • Peter Jelosits | Yamadori
  • Jeanine De Bique | Kate Pinkerton
  • Alexandru Moisiuc | Onkle Bonze
  • Marcus Pelz | Der kaiserliche Kommissär
  • Martin Müller | Der Standesbeamte
  • Arina Holecek | Mutter Cio-Cio-Sans
  • Denisa Danielová | Base
The Staatsoper does not, I must allow, have any awful productions of any kind. Compared against the repute of the institution and the other shows I've seen there, however, this production of Madame Butterfly felt rather poorly executed. The set was intriguing in its design, but utilized fundamentally uninteresting colors. The direction hesitated somewhere between really playing with cultural difference and a standard dramatic opera production. The singing ranged from well executed in the low voices to barked or inconsistant in the higher and more important voices.

The first act set,
unfortunately no photos of the second and third act set seem to online
The set, as mentioned, was neat in the way it utilized three-dimensional space and paid homage to typical historical Japanese house design. In the first act the little house was downstage left with most of the action occurring in front of it and to downstage right. A bridge led upstage. It was nice how the corner of the little house was made up of screen doors, allowing Goro, Pinkerton, and the servants to play with the dynamic of the house. The rocky bridge with red wooden railings allowed the Butterfly's wedding procession to make a grand entrance when it was time for her arrival, and also for a haunting feeling when she is denounced for changing religion. In the second act, turning the house into a wall dividing upstage and downstage was clever. Rarely do we have most entrances and exits occurring from the back of the stage rather than the sides. Here, though, the sliding door allowed most of the action to occur this way. Furthermore, hinting at the set from the first act gave a sense of imprisonment, that Butterfly becomes cut off from the outside world. This set would have been wonderful if the color scheme, particularly of the interior, had not been drab tan brown, faded green, and washed out blue. At risk of playing to stereotypes, the brighter reds and other hues we associate with Japan might have been more engaging and dressed up the set more. Also, while the drab set does perhaps indicate sadness, there is strong irony in having bright colors surrounding the tragedy.

These are not the same performers, but it gives an idea of the production
Colors are not the only cultural question posed by Madame Butterfly, however. The opera absolutely poses a clash of cultures, even if Puccini often represents foreign cultures in through the inaccurate lens of Orientalism. The clash is inherent in the plot, and many productions over the years have concerned themselves relatively little with the clash of cultures, utilizing a few bows, playing with Pinkerton's manipulation of Japanese law and with Butterfly's assumptions. Others have tried to incorporate Japanese culture at every level, changing movement patterns, including elements of Kabuki theatre, and dramatizing the differences between Pinkerton and the rest of the cast, Pinkerton and Butterfly, and Butterfly and Kate. The problem with this production was that it was in between these concepts. Japanese characters wore culturally appropriate clothing and women shuffled when they walked. Bows were utilized, and the cultural differences written in were played up. Sometimes, however, odd, jerky gestures were included, especially for Butterfly. She would lean back and become stricken, she would move her hands oddly in what presumably were Oriental gestures. These elements only cropped up occasionally, however, and were therefore surprising and hard to fit together. If they had merely gone with a dramatic, primarily Western staging, they could have focused on emphasizing the tragedy through normal acting. Had a focus on cultural difference instead been used, Butterfly's innocence could have been heartrending instead of comical, as it was in this production.

The minor characters of this production served their roles adequately. I thought that the chorus did well, despite a Humming Chorus that began so soft it was inaudible. Butterfly's condemnation was appropriately haunting, and her relations with their deep bass voices sounded like condemnation from God himself. Herwig Pecoraro's Goro was a fairly standard character tenor, though his characterization lacked a strong direction between nasty, greedy, foolish, or careless. Prince Yamadori, played by Peter Jelosits, was very convincingly head over heels for Butterfly.

Juliette Mars
Eijiro Kai
Suzuki and Sharpless, played by Juliette Mars and Eijiro Kai both came off well, also. Mars was consistent throughout, providing a mezzo-soprano tone that was rich in the lower ranges and sweet in the top. This allowed her to play a strong Suzuki against Dessi's Butterfly. The characterization was one very much of a caretaker and a rock to hold onto in a storm. Sometimes it seems that Suzuki is just as lost as Butterfly or doesn't know for sure what will happen. Here, it felt like Suzuki knew all along but didn't have the heart to really bring the situation home to Butterfly, holding out hope that maybe Butterfly was actually right about Pinkerton. Kai, as Sharpless, brought an almost surprisingly robust baritone to the fore, carrying throughout the opera, even in the heaviest duets and largest orchestral accompaniment sections. Nonetheless, he felt less relevant than Sharpless sometimes does. This may not be his fault, but from a personal standpoint, I like to feel the acute awkwardness of Sharpless' position and his guilt-ridden paralysis as he cannot decide how to handle what he knows against what impact it may have on Butterfly.

Fortunately, Puccini's music saved this scene

Despite the adroit performances by the ensemble, minor characters, Mars, and Kai, the production fell drastically short due to its lead performers. Marian Talaba's B.F. Pinkerton was, frankly, awful to hear. His midrange felt acceptable some of the time, with a fairly big, dramatic tenor sound with a lot of roundness. It became apparent, however, in duets and with heavy accompaniment, that there was almost no cut to this part of the voice. As Talaba reached for the higher notes, it sounded as though they were shouted, and even when they did have some ring to them, they felt forced and pressurized. He never had the sweetness required for the kinder passages of the opera, either. He looked and acted awkward on stage, and felt more like some sort of spoiled playground bully than an American playboy come to Japan.

Daniela Dessi was marginally better in the title role. I recognize Dessi has won some acclaim for her Butterfly, but the inconsistency of her Staatsoper performance was unconvincing. The voice seemed to move from one style to the next without any rhyme or reason. In the midrange it was often warbled, with a vibrato simply too wide to be appreciable. At times she would have very sweet pianissimi, even and especially on high notes. Where the orchestra blasted beneath her, the warble in the vibrato was covered and one had to listen hard to realize the sound wasn't of a standard, solid production. Her characterization of the part was hamstrung by her need to execute the strange Oriental emotes mentioned earlier. Also, I couldn't quite figure out whether she was trying to be a young girl so innocent that no hint of tragedy could dog her, or whether she was simply failing to instill the foreshadowing we expect from Butterfly who suspects something is wrong even as she hold out hope against all odds.

I must say that the orchestra, under the direction of Patrick Lange, played excellently and was very conscientious to pull back at certain points for the singers and charge ahead in others. I have seen Patrick Lange more than once now, and I appreciate his mix of impassioned verve and intelligent conducting. It was Puccini's amazing music (for someone accused of manipulating audiences through cheap tricks and who admitted personally that he was a "first rate, second rate composer," he is pretty incredible), the cries of "Butterfly" (though Talaba's were essentially inaudible despite Lange trying to give him as much as he could) and the crushing orchestral ending, that still brought me close to tears at the end of this lackluster performance. If Puccini can manipulate me to tears a hundred years later from his grave, despite the failures of living and breathing performers, I'm happy to be manipulated


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