Madame Butterfly : That Old Opera!

Melody Moore (Cio-Cio-San) © Yves Renaud (1) Melody Moore (Cio-Cio-San) © Yves Renaud (1)

As much as I am an avowed culture vulture, there are a lot of art forms that I am not 100% familiar with. I don’t have a lot of exposure to high art stuff, like the symphony and whatever has a ticket price of over 35$. But it is not like I will ever say no to a new experience and that I won’t give it a shot, so I went to the opera for the first time, to see the Opera de Montréal’s production of Madama Butterfly.

Melody Moore (Cio-Cio-San) © Yves Renaud (2)

Melody Moore (Cio-Cio-San) © Yves Renaud (2)

The story is pretty straightforward. A very young Japanese girl, Butterfly, is getting married to an American navy officer, Pinkerton. He is simply trying to get laid, and plans on taking advantage of Japan’s lax divorce legislation in order to cut and run when he gets bored with her. He rents her a house on top of the hill and then takes off, promising that he’ll return by the spring. Three years later, she’s still waiting, and has had his little blond half-Japanese son to keep the memory fresh. He returns with his brand spanking new proper American wife to take the child away….and you can guess the rest. There’s always a tragic death at the opera.

Like all firsts, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Operas are generally sung in the language of their first publication, in this case Italian, but the Opera de Montreal thoughtfully and smartly put on a narrow little screen over the top of the set in order to project subtitles to facilitate the following of the story. It sure is something to have a full orchestra in the pit. The sound was great and the singers were fantastic, especially the baritone singing the American consul, Morgan Smith. I found his emotive range to be as elastic as his vocal one and his character was certainly my favorite to watch and hear.

Antoine Bélanger (F.B. Pinkerton) Melody Moore (Cio-Cio-San) © Yves Renaud

Antoine Bélanger (F.B. Pinkerton) Melody Moore (Cio-Cio-San) © Yves Renaud

I was a bit disappointed by the set. With the grandiose nature of the show, and the size of the voices and performances, you are expecting the set to fit the occasion, but there were no significant changes throughout beyond some basic panelling shifts typical to a Japanese household. No wow factor. Now to be fair, the script dictates one location, but at the same time, there is supposed to be a sense of a home looking over the hill onto the ocean, and a lush garden setting just beyond, and a sense of isolation, and you just never got that feeling. There was an impressive nightfall lighting sequence in the first scene, but the design all in all left me a bit cold.

The other thing that surprised me was the pacing. While there was a lot happening dramatically in a short space of time, the pacing of an opera is so much different to that of a play. If you are going to go, put on your musical theatre goggles, but minus the expectation of elaborate dance numbers. By its nature, an opera is slow. This is why personally, I would have appreciated more of a set to offset the feeling of nothing happening while people sing about their feelings. 

If I go back to the opera, I will think of it more as a live performance of a musical radio play with a few theatrical elements included, and focus on the virtuosity of the performers. I can see that Madama Butterfly is a good production, and the performers truly shined, but maybe with my millenial attention span, I’ll stick to more populist art forms in the future.

Playing at Salle Wilfred Pelletier, at Places-des-Arts, September 22-24-26-28, tickets available here .

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