Thursday, October 23, 2008

La Boheme, Madama Butterfly

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When I was little, my favorite stories were the ones that made me cry: The Little Fir Tree and the Steadfast Tin Soldier. Maybe I needed the cathartic release. I have never particularly been an opera fan, but this year I went to see a couple of tearjerkers: La Boheme and Madama Butterfly. As I said, opera is not my forte, but theater is, and I will discuss these productions from a theatrical point of view.

La Boheme - Teatro Bellas Artes de Cafam, 13 September

This was a lively and voluptuous production. The staging was rich and detailed, particularly in the Café Momus scene, with a full adult and children's chorus on the stage. Director Alejandro Chacón kept the staging lively, with plenty of interaction, movement and humor. The singing and acting performances were solid, with excellent timing and pace (except when the audience broke into applause after selected arias, forcing the performers to pause and throwing them off their pace) in a celebration of the life and love of young people who have no money to pay the rent.

The lead characters are supposed to be Rodolfo (Juan Carlos Valls) and Mimi (Georgia Jarman), but the exuberant Musetta (Jennifer Rivera) was the highlight of the show. Despite the tragic finale, the production managed to sustain a high level of energy right to the end, and was thoroughly enjoyable, despite Mimi's inevitable and slightly insipid demise.

Madama Butterfly - Teatro Bellas Artes de Cafam, 18 October

In contrast to the lively pace of La Boheme, a celebration of youth and love, Madama Butterfly is a much more intimate opera about a Japanese woman who marries Pinkerton, an American soldier who has no intention of taking the marriage seriously. The tone is much more sober and somber. Hiroko Morita is a superb singer and made a wonderful Butterfly.

Director Sebastiano Salvato made some bizarre choices, failing to use many of the staging elements that were available to him to their best advantage. For example, he had an adult chorus on stage for the wedding scene, but everyone was just standing around. The entire notion of family and community was lost. At other times, he apparently disregarded what was being sung: As Suzuki helps Butterfly to remove her elaborate robes, Butterfly sings about difficulties untying the knot, except that no knot is being untied. Suzuki helps Butterfly remove an endless series of over-robes, identical except for their print, which had the audience giggling at what was not supposed to be a comic moment. At another point Butterfly is talking to Suzuki about something… however Suzuki had already left the stage a while ago. The Buddhist priest, the Bonze, who is also Butterfly's uncle, is supposed to the represent traditional Japanese values of family and religion that she is renouncing in giving up her religion and marrying an American husband. He should be a dramatic and significant presence on stage, but he just looked inappropriately clownish and ineffectual in a wild wig.

The staging appeared to be a fairly simple series of sliding panels that represent the Japanese house (and the intimate interior life of Butterfly). But the design went overboard, incorporating two flying panels that drop vertically into the set (and had to be manually affixed to the floor ever time they were lowered), using these to great distraction and no great effect. The lighting contrasts lacked subtlety.

I can't say that I favor stories of pining away for unrequited love, but the singers and the orchestra were excellent.

Apparently this was my grandmother's favorite opera, and her favorite aria was "Un bel di vedremo." This is a lovely version.

Although I preferred the lament "Vogliatemi bene, un bene piccolino"

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