Noh in Los Angeles

I saw one of the most stunning productions of Madama Butterfly to date. It’s Robert Wilson’s LA Opera Madama Butterfly.

I went into it bracing myself for a nap. It’s such a famous opera and I’ve heard Un Bel Di an umpteen number of times, and in fact, ask anyone about Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and they’ll most likely be able to hum it. I’ve also seen it staged quite nicely in Singapore with Nancy Yuen. But which student would pass up free tickets to the LA Opera House, and lunch to boot? Thank you Visions and Voices.

The production I saw was  a 2008 incarnation of Robert Wilson’s minimalist interpretation of the opera. From his website, it seems like the production’s journey first began in 1993. I’m not completely sure what the differences are. I suppose it could have been a deliberate choice not to have a word from him in the program. He strikes me as a director who’d rather let his works speak for themselves.

He chose a very minimalist style for this VERY well-known opera. No distracting costumes, or spectacular sets common to Puccini. Carefully crafted lighting states pinged with amazing precision for theatrical effect added to the dramatic force without overtaking it. I thought combining a stylized noh with suggestions of a Japanese setting was an approached that served the opera and Puccini’s music very well.

Robert Wilsons Madama Butterfly...Cio Cio San

What made Wilson’s minimalist approach so efficient in bringing out the rawness of Madama Butterfly was that the musical emotion was carried and conveyed with so much truth. Let’s face it, Puccini is all about wallowing in melodrama. Wilson’s strip bare staging helped alleviate the melodrama that can be a bit off-putting in the cynical 21st Century…or at least mine. Conductor James Conlon was the epitome of what I think musical and opera conductors should be: sensitive to the emotional journey and alive. The orchestra didn’t just play what was written on the score. Each and every note reflected what was happening on stage, even the drums. Liping Zhang played Cio Cio San, and even though she looked mostly sad and expressionless through most parts, you could really feel everything she was going through. I was very stunned by how encompassing her emotional projection was. I was sitting 2 rows from the back (4 stories up, nosebleed) and I felt I was onstage with her. With vocal control that gave me goosebumps (favorite goosebump moment was during the waiting scene), her voice carried all of Cio Cio San’s emotional weight. (Sidenote: I suppose that’s a good acting note to keep in mind, especially in musical theatre, the voice should carry all of the character’s emotional weight). I left the theatre carrying her voice and the weight of Cio Cio San’s suicide.

I did take a short nap though. I chose to do so towards the end of Act 1, when Pinkerton was putting his moves on Cio Cio San. I just wasn’t captivated. And I have to say, the subtitles for the production seemed to make Pinkerton a bit more lecherous. Hehe. Good on him/her.

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