Manon, Mimi, Tosca and Cio-Cio San. Why does Puccini send these women to such heartless deaths? It’s a question which musicologist Mosco Carner answered in the 1950s with a speculative Freudian reduction (the composer apparently had a debilitating mother complex). In this Volksoper production, director Stefan Herheim’s response is to point the finger at the audience: Butterfly quickly develops second thoughts about suicide and it is we who brutally stab her to death as she pleads for her life.Click here to read more of my Bachtrack review. More thoughts after the jump.
So, the onstage Puccini’s furious rewriting of the score during the interlude: there’s obviously a historical dimension to this. The Volksoper performed the original version which premiered so disastrously at La Scala in 1904, leading Puccini to produce another four versions. Herheim references that, and even has his Puccini limping (a car crash in 1903 resulted in a fractured tibia which took eight painful months to heal). But what I wrote stands: this production is less about the work’s reception than a temporally displaced Puccini striving to protect Butterfly from us. The Verfremdung element to this and Puccini’s repeated breaking of the fourth wall owes a lot to Brecht and besides, the audience as voyeur idea is nothing new. But the detailed characterization almost makes you forget that. For revived Herheim juvenilia done on a Volksoper budget, it’s impressive.
Using the original version was interesting in other respects: no ‘Addio’ (with Jenk Bieck’s Pinkerton, no great shame), but there was that great Pinkerton/Kate/Suzuki trio. Lord knows how unwatchable the extended dumb-Americans-mock-Japanese-culture scene would have been in a more mindless production; Herheim had that going on – and the Japanese giving at good at they got – in rather more subtle ways.
Image credit: Barbara Pálffy / Volksoper