Writer Kanara Ty learns the hard way that sometimes free screenings are not always free.
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The L.A. Opera's Madama Butterfly desperately wants to reestablish its authentic Japanese roots. But does it try too hard?
The Los Angeles Operaís latest production of Madama Butterfly skimps on the spectacle and achieves something of the spectral instead. Robert Wilsonís lighting, designs, and direction attempt to take the story of a young geisha and her absent American lover on a new path by stripping away many of the trappings of opera that people know and love and replacing it with stripped-down costumes and staging. But does taking away the frills add to our appreciation, or take away some of the delight?
Wilsonís production is certainly eye-catching. Instead of colorful kimonos and dashing military uniforms, Frida Parmeggianiís deconstructed costumes are spare and stark and range from beautifully structured but flowing dresses accented with exaggerated trailing half-sleeves to the bizarre pieces that may have derived from menís hakama, but took a detour through a sci-fi movie. This relentless deconstruction and reinterpretation is symbolic of the whole enterprise: frequently ethereal and lovely, but occasionally jarring. The sets by Stephanie Engeln are more consistently successful, dominated by natural materials. The stage manages to work simultaneously as a blank space and bare background while also skillfully referencing Japanese ascetics and architecture with very minimal visual cues. The barely chromatic costuming and sets shone at their dramatic best against an utterly plain backdrop very stylishly lit with intense splashes of color at appropriate moments.
Probably the most distracting part of the new staging is the stylized and peculiar movement that Wilson uses to approximate the kinds of staging used in the similarly spare Noh theater tradition. In some cases the performers pulled this off to spectacular effect, gliding effortlessly and mysteriously in a mysterious nowhere land. In less dazzling moments, the singers looked arthritic and rigid. Cio-Cio-san and Pinkertonís duet at the end of the first act is exactly as it should be, and all the audienceís attention is directed toward the loverís emotions and the beauty of the music, and the silent presence of their son in the second act is mesmerizing. But when Butterfly and Suzuki start pantomiming household chores, the effect is tedious, flat and stilted. Divorced from its context, the Noh-patterned movements have little relation to Pucciniís story and little to add. Taking from a more thematically and stylistically related tradition might have given the work a much needed boost of energy and still had interesting tensions with the original Puccini text, but Noh simply does not have any particularly strong relation, and seems almost arbitrary beyond being the application of a Japanese style to an imaginary Japan.
So the design all in all is elegant and spare except for a few odd detours. But what does this mean for Pucciniís music? When everything works together there are moments of transcendent beauty, but the excessively mannered movements of the performers in particular is grating and some of the excess is actually more distracting from the music than a more flowery and traditional staging would have been. On occasion, the effect is downright jarring, with such profound disconnects between the words being sung and the world they describe and the stripped stage. Sometimes this tension between the imagined Japans of Puccini and Wilson is truly exciting, and sometimes merely strained and uncomfortable. Both tackle Japan in the same haphazard way, treating it less as a real place than an imaginary never-never land on which projections of the foreign and exotic can be overlaid a familiar love story. Audiences have bought into Pucciniís vision regardless because of the power of the music and the bittersweet poignancy of the rather simple story. Wilsonís haphazard augmentation using ďauthenticĒ Japanese forms works against this being an imagined Japan and unsuccessfully and unfortunately shifts back in the direction of reality, even as it's rescued by the serene severity of the costuming and sets where the unreal Japan reasserts itself.
The L.A. Opera cast is excellent in what must have been a very difficult work, and some clearly stood out as magnificent performances. Vladimir Chernov is particularly good at bringing some warmth to the sometimes chilly production and imbuing the proceedings with a little touch of humanity. But the overwhelming honor belongs to Patricia Racetteís gorgeous Butterfly, sweet and dramatic by turn. They go a long way to prove something the edgy production intended to: the drama and splendor of the music itself is enough, and deserves more attention.
Date Posted: 2/9/2006