The week in classic: La bohème; Madame Butterfly; Mr Brouček’s Excursions – the review | Opera
OThe mystery of opera production, contrary to the laws of arithmetic, is that addition can turn into subtraction. The New Glyndebourne Festival Bohemian (1896) is full of ideas but they diminish an already whole work by itself. Staged by director Floris Visser, coming on the wings of promise from the Dutch National Opera and beyond, this is Glyndebourne’s first short story Bohemia for more than two decades. Visser bypasses Puccini’s detailed stage directions and no one should object. A new approach is welcome if it convinces. Thus, the familiar garret, the Latin Quarter and the city gate are replaced by a fixed, high-walled cobbled street that recedes towards a black horizon. Your imagination does the rest.
This oppressive linear space restricts the action, however, and results in a confused relationship between key characters that never finds clarity. The only interruption to the countless shades of gray (designs by Dieuweke van Reij and his team, with effective lighting by Alex Brok) is an accompanying color: sinister red balloons, Mimì’s pink beret and a wreath of flowers sumptuous roses that miraculously sprout from a pile of chairs. Are these the fake flowers that seamstress Mimì makes with fabric? An ubiquitous figure in a long overcoat, yes Death himself (Christopher Lemmings), pulls a tarp aside to reveal those flowers and you know that’s a bad sign, if not a great symbol. If Puccini had needed Death in the cast list, surely he would have created the character. Instead, he managed, quite brilliantly, with a musical play of optimism and angst, to smudge it gradually in every note, bar, change of harmony or flicker of counterpoint, of the score.
The joyous musical and physical interweaving of street vendors, shoppers, children in Act 2’s Momus Cafe Christmas Eve scene, was heartily sung but its usual exuberance was absent. The singing was of a high standard, with a charming Rodolfo in Sehoon Moon (replacing Long Long, delayed by visa delays but arriving shortly). His voice is pure and lyrical, his stage manners childish and sympathetic. As Mimì, Yaritza Véliz, a former Royal Opera House young artist Jette Parker, sang forcefully and above all safely, but the production did little to illuminate her fragile characterization. Daniel Scofield as Vuvu Mpofu’s bubbly Marcello and Musetta made an impression. Richard Suart, with the best Italian of the evening, gave meaning to Benoît’s very small part. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jordan de Souza, was as always reliable but sounded slightly subdued. For the record, an enthusiastic audience on the first night applauded. Apprehensions yes, but Bohemiawith many performances to come at Glyndebourne, always worth the trip.
Hear Puccini Lady Butterfly (1904), in a revival at the Royal Opera House a few nights later, recalls the distance traveled by the composer between these two popular masterpieces. Dan Ettinger conducted, with the ROH Orchestra and an alert cast, an explosive form (best brass and percussion work). Freddie De Tommaso, tenor of the moment, brought unusual emotion to the selfish Pinkerton. Ashamed and appalled Lucas Meacham as Sharpless and Patricia Bardon as Cassandra-style maid Suzuki excelled. Lianna Haroutounian, in the title role, devastated in her ever more abandoned but skilful, broken but fearless performance.
The interest here, in Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s 2002 production, is the announced attempt to approach the presentation of the work of Japan. Given the calls in some quarters for the work to be canceled, and at the same time its enormous box office value, ROH had no choice but to call in the experts. Revival director Daniel Dooner worked with a Japanese motion director (Sonoko Kamimura) and many gesture, makeup, and costume adjustments were made. From the back of the stalls, these changes were really subtle. If it gives new credibility to opera, and contributes to the fight against racial stereotypes, we can only applaud. No opera can make a country or its history “authentic”. The real truth in this work – portrayed all too clearly and shockingly by Puccini – is the behavior of a ruthless, imperialistic man towards a vulnerable 15-year-old girl from another culture. Each encounter with this work is a reminder of his genius.
If you have a strong grip on the Hussite rebellion against the Holy Roman Empire – no modesty please – Janáček’s fifth opera may be crystal clear. The slumped among us struggle. The complete title of the work indicates its stakes: M. Brouček’s Excursions to the Moon and to the 15th Century (1920). The text was concocted by seven librettists, based on two Czech short stories. This multiplicity is torn through the opera. Grange Park Opera opened its 2022 season with Broucek in surely the most bizarre, extravagant and insane production of any opera since the Battle of Lipany (Don’t you remember? 1434).
David Pountney, as a director and translator, knows this repertoire (he directed the entire Janáček cycle). Essentially, Brouček is a dissatisfied Philistine landlord whose desires center around beer and sausages. In a drunken state, he finds himself first on the moon, then in the 15th century. The scenes change rapidly, from the lunar landscape to the Hussite past (cartooning by Leslie Travers and Marie-Jeanne Lecca; lighting by Tim Mitchell). The joke, peppered with contemporary references to Boris, goes on too long, but Janáček’s music is irresistible. The BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by George Jackson, performed with robust flair. A deluxe British cast, led by an incomparable Peter Hoare, shed light on Janáček’s grueling vocal lines and included Fflur Wynne, Mark Le Brocq, Andrew Shore, Clive Bayley, Anne-Marie Owens and Adrian Thompson. The only way to approach this quirk is to shed the bondage of logic or sense and embrace your inner zen. Breathe deeply. So everything makes sense.
Star ratings (out of five)
Mrs. Butterfly ★★★★
Mr Broucek’s Excursions ★★★★