Madama Butterfly in Lucca

Recently, I’ve been staying with my family near Lucca, in Tuscany. Lucca is a gorgeous medieval city and its two greatest achievements are having maintained an intact city wall for 500 years and being the birthplace of Puccini. With this in mind, the Comune di Lucca in collaboration with the University of Western Ontario organised performances of operas on the city walls and while I was in Lucca I was able to go to one of these – Madama Butterfly (there was no performance of Tosca, which I thought was surely a missed opportunity if you have a wall to perform operas on).

The set was laid out on a small platform on one of the bastions found at each corner of the walls, next to the row of trees at the edge of the outer wall itself. It consisted of three white screens at the back of the platform and various large white egg-like things on the floor (these were used as essentially every prop that was needed, from the flowers they decorate the house with to Butterfly’s child). There wasn’t very much seating, so most people sat on the grass or on the stone ruins surrounding the seating. Dusk had begun by the time it started and by the end it was completely dark.

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Cecily Bednarek as Butterfly

This performance was an edited version of the opera and as I didn’t know Madama Butterfly very well to start off with, I couldn’t always tell exactly what was going on or which bits had been cut out. The idea was to show the events of the opera as either a series of flashbacks or events imagined or dreamt by Butterfly. I was mostly able to follow what was happening – the plot essentially went as you would expect, but occasionally cutting back to Butterfly and Suzuki waiting for Pinkerton to come back. They cut out some of the duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton and, as there were only four singers, any parts for anyone other than Butterfly, Pinkerton, Suzuki or Sharpless. The only part of this editing that I found really confusing was right at the end, when Butterfly didn’t kill herself and just carried on singing. I wasn’t able to follow what she was saying and so had no idea what was going on. It ended with her tearing open one of the screens at the back and walking off that way. While the extra bit was perfectly nice to listen to, I still have no idea where it came from or what it meant.

The singers all performed well – Cecily Bednarek as Butterfly sounded a little unsure of herself to begin with but once she had got past “Un bel di”, which she sang beautifully, her voice became more confident, as did her acting. Leanne Kaufman (Suzuki), Kyle Melton (Pinkerton) and Mattia Campetti (Sharpless) all sang confidently as well, but it was Butterfly’s show, as in this edited version she had by far the most singing and was on stage all the way through. The Humming Chorus was the only part of the singing that I really didn’t like: it doesn’t work with only four people singing it. To be honest, it would probably have been better if they’d just got the audience to sing along.

It was a really interesting and enjoyable version of an opera that I haven’t really listened to much and because of the setting and its history, it was a unique experience.

Anna Bolena at WNO

Last Saturday, I went to WNO (again!) to see Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.

Starting with the positives: The singing was overall very good, especially Serena Farnocchia as Anne Boleyn and Katharine Goeldner as Jane Seymour. Their duet in the second half of the opera was very moving and well acted. Alastair Miles sang his role of Henry VIII perfectly well but there wasn’t really any sense of power or manipulativeness from him. The lighting for the set of the final scene and also the park scene was clever and made the whole scene interesting to look at.

Serena Farnocchia as Anna Bolena

But that’s pretty much all I have to say that was good about this performance. Anna Bolena is not, in my opinion, one of Donizetti’s best works and the first half in particular winds on and on with no obvious meaning or direction. The plot makes next no sense and not much happens for a lot of the opera. But the main let-down was the production. The sets were bleak, completely monochrome and the revolving stage seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever. In the prison scenes, there was more light than the scenes set at court. The costumes were, quite frankly, hideous. The women wore vaguely 50s-style dresses, the men wore strangely shaped coats and then the King was wearing something that appeared to involve chainmail, leather and fur all at the same time. The direction was boring, apart from in the scene where she goes mad and at the end nothing happened. Surely you could at least just have somebody step forward holding a sword or axe, as though about to kill her? But no, she just stood there facing the back of the stage. The conducting wasn’t particularly inspired either – it seemed to all be going very slowly but that may not have had anything to do with the conducting.

Tosca at WNO

Last night, my mum and I went to Cardiff to see Puccini’s Tosca performed by WNO. Tosca  has been one of my favourite operas for a long time but I’ve never actually seen it live. We had seats in the front row of the stalls and directly in the middle which in my opinion was the best place to be sitting in the entire hall.

The main thing that struck me about this performance was the set and costume design and the lighting. It was all done in a ‘realistic’ style, which can sometimes be boring, but I think with Tosca, it’s the best way to do it. The set for Act 1 was very reminiscent of Italian-style churches, but still managed to appear closed and oppressive, like the atmosphere of the opera. For Act 2, the set was the same shape, a kind of cross-section of the room, so that the effect of a kind of terrifying beauty was the same. Act 3, though, had a more open set, apart from the angel that looms over the stage, sword pointing downwards as though to spear the people below. For the dawn scene, the lighting, which was excellent throughout the performance, really came into its own. The sky behind the battlements faded from blue to gold beautifully and gave a wonderfully dramatic backdrop to the equally dramatic plot.

The final moments of Act 3

Mary Elizabeth WIlliams sang the title role well and managed to make her character likeable in Acts 1 and 3. Her Vissi d’arte was moving but a bit too harsh and jagged in places. The acting was OK but rather clichéd, especially in Act 2, where there was lots of agonised pacing and leaning her head on the wall. Gwyn Hughes Jones, who seems to be WNO’s default tenor (I’ve seen him so far as Don Jose, Don Ottavio, Rodolfo, Manrico and now Cavaradossi), was, as ever, a good but not outstanding singer. However, his acting was not particularly impressive either and there was no chemistry between him and WIlliams. Claudio Otelli, as Scarpia, was an excellent actor and made a gorgeously chilling Scarpia, particularly during the Te Deum at the end of Act 1.

I really enjoyed this performance but mostly for the production, lighting and directing. I hope to see the production again but perhaps with a different cast (a different tenor for once, maybe!)

Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House

Quite a while ago now, I went with my dad to see my first ever performance at the Royal Opera House in London. Up until now, I had only been to performances by WNO and other travelling companies in Bristol, so this was very exciting. My parents and I arrived a bit early, so I got to look around in the shop and I bought this CD (although I was also very tempted to buy a giant poster of Simon Keenlyside to put up in my room).

Then my mum took this picture of me and my dad outside the Royal Opera House and went off to go and see ENO’s production of Wozzeck.

So we went inside and found our seats. We were sitting a little bit around to the left and towards the front of the Amphitheatre level.

The arrow shows roughly where I was sitting

The arrow shows roughly where I was sitting

There are two main things I need to talk about here: the performance and the opera itself.

This was my first experience of this opera and I really loved it because it really is one of Verdi’s best (in my opinion as someone who hasn’t heard several of his operas yet). The music is great and very moving. The thing that really struck me about this opera was how well the plot works and how closely the music fits with it. I think that this is one of the few operas where the plot really makes sense (not including the bit at the very end which makes literally no sense at all). It has lots of levels to it – you get to see the situations from the points of view of every main character and both the political and emotional drama that’s going on. This comes through especially clearly in the famous aria “Ella giammai m’amo”. I love this song because, apart from the fact that it’s beautiful music, you see Filippo as not just the bad guy but as an old man with too many decisions to make. Throughout the opera, I always felt sympathy towards each of the characters at different points and that made the performance as a whole much more emotional and involving. The other moment that really interested me was when Posa was asking Philip to help the Dutch people and Philip refused but you could tell that he really admired Posa for trying to change the world and being brave enough to challenge what those with power did. It’s much more interesting if the bad guy isn’t just a one-sided character.

Mariusz Kwiecien as Posa and Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip

The performance was beyond amazing. The best performers, I think, were Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip, Mariusz Kwiecien as Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa and Béatrice Uria-Monzon as Princess Eboli. I don’t think I will ever see a better performance of King Philip than Furlanetto’s, especially his ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ His weariness and frustration comes acr oss beautifully in the music. Kwiecien and Uria-Morzon both acted well and made their characters very developed using the music as well. Roberto Aronica (who sang Carlos) and Lianna Haroutounian (who sang Elisabetta) both did well but neither did anything particularly outstanding until Haroutounian’s Tu che le vanita, which she sang very beautifully and elegantly.

The sets were fine but didn’t really add anything to the performance and in some scenes just looked strange (what is the red Lego wall thing in Act 2 for?). But the singing and acting was magnificent and I don’t think I’ve ever wanted an opera to end less. Hoping to go back to the ROH as soon as possible!

This are the tweets I posted on the night: