Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Konwitschny Butterfly in Bratislava

Slovak National Theatre, 23/01/2012

Cio-Cio San | Adriana Kohútková

Pinkerton | Peter Berger
Suzuki | Monika Fabianová
Sharpless | Dalibor Jenis 
Goro | Ondrej Šaling

Conductor | Paolo Gatto
Director | Peter Konwitschny

Co-production with the Oper Graz (Graz premiere 1992, Bratislava premiere 2007)

I went to this 20 year old Konwitschny production with Volksoper expectations, thinking about the evening as a Tesco and Carrefour shopping run with an opera on the side. That theatrically it equalled a great night at the Theater an der Wien can be put down to an outstanding production which, aesthetically, has barely aged, and a revival team that’s done such an uncannily authentic job it’s as if Konwitschny rehearsed it himself. 

Pinkerton’s transaction sets the plot in motion, and Konwitschny focuses attention on that with a scrim-projected video collage of Japanese society – including Cio-Cio San, Suzuki and other women – being put under the hammer, the point about commodification made discreetly in black and white (with price tags that of course get revised ever downwards), and mainly to introduce broader ethical framing influenced chiefly by Marxist sociology. To emphasize Pinkerton’s mechanistic alienation, a film inserted between Acts II and III shows sped-up New York corporate drones living the soul-sucking 9-5 dream (again too elegantly shot, far exceeding the usual film-in-opera standards, to overdo the agenda-pushing). Where this gets interesting lies in the manner that the ideological framework is tied to the dramaturgy: the point Konwitschny is driving at is very much Pinkerton-centred, suggesting that he left because he had to escape social pressures somewhat nebulously defined. The abandoned wife doesn’t appear to factor much in his decision. 

About halfway through his programme note Konwitschny shoehorns in the required shibboleth: ‘Waiting for a man for many years who is not coming back is a suffering not unknown to Western women.’ That said, a sympathetic Pinkerton, rather than a boor, brute or paedophile, goes to the heart of what is ultimately an intelligently heartfelt Konzept. As Konwitschny argues elsewhere: ‘Pinkerton is not a seducer or bad person but an overly sensitive, inexperienced young man who attempts to follow prevailing conventions by “acting like everyone else”. His family may have encouraged him to travel to Japan to become more worldly. Not superficial enough to emerge from his relationship with Cio-Cio San without being changed, Pinkerton is unable to find his way back to the norms of his American value system.’ Cio-Cio San is no 15 year old girl either, but rather ‘a passionate woman ready to give herself to love.’ And so the libretto doesn’t apportion blame for the tragic ending, Konwitschny suggests; instead, we are shown a situation that inexorably leads to catastrophe.’ Or as he doesn’t quite point the finger, a situation conditioned more by Western social mores than post-feudal conservatism.

And yet he doesn’t seem at all preoccupied with the moral hypocrisy of the big bad West. The critique is implied in an array of sensitively crafted touches in the blocking and Personenregie that throws the focus on the plight of the characters: Butterfly and Pinkerton must navigate the symbolic wreckage of the set to come together in a match facilitated by the well-intentioned Suzuki, who appears determined to sell the marriage to Butterfly’s family by having the pair undergo a series of Zauberflöte-style trials – one of which, involving blindfolds, neatly sneaks in a foreshadowing of their unlucky fate. But sell it Suzuki does: Butterfly and Pinkerton’s wedding ceremony takes place under the isolation of a white sheet while the onlookers sway approvingly, and it isn’t the Bonze’s descent (he literally crashed through the scenery in a spectacular coup de théâtre) that scatters the crowd, but Suzuki’s clucking – she recognizes the importance of allowing the couple an intimate moment. The Personenregie of the love duet – again, done with blindfolds – was achingly beautiful. 

What better way to make a three year wait palpable than Grey Gardens-style delusion and dilapidation? But what this image doesn’t show is the hundreds of letters strewn across the stage; this Butterfly doesn’t just mope and fantasize, she desperately tries to regain her husband (patriarchal implications delicately sidestepped). Suzuki has not only turned against Pinkerton but also Butterfly, and they are locked in a self-destructive relationship. When Pinkerton reappears he’s no less benevolent than before but seems to have lost his way a bit, as prolonged exposure to industrial capitalism can induce existential drift (actually the ideology here is winged more convincingly than at the beginning). Though he seems to give up on the two leads at this point, Konwitschny’s optimism won’t quit. Enter child, without fanfare, which even Herheim couldn’t resist. And how well-adjusted, healthy, sane. This kid is so normal that Konwitschny can have him play Cowboys & Indians shoot ‘em up with Butterfly and embrace Sharpless as his missing father all without the faintest trace of subtext. And so as Butterfly does the deed this child becomes the vessel for all that was unfulfilled in her own life. The suffocating clutter of shōji screens clears and in a striking final image the tragedy is counterbalanced by life-affirming hope and the promise of social renewal. 
A final remark about the production: it’s the very first I’ve seen that doesn’t misrepresent Japanese culture, either deliberately or mistakenly (I write from a position of understanding the language, rusty kanji notwithstanding). And Konwitschny isn’t even trying to pull a Minghella! His detailed Personenregie was even more compelling than usual for being shaped at every Japan-inflected turn, even when dramatically heightened, by an evident familiarity with nihonjinron and its Benedictist baggage: the way that Goro shushed Butterfly in ‘Gran ventura’ was all too plausible, and Butterfly’s son convinces as a child of two cultures, who has been rigorously schooled in ritual and knows things like how to bow to his elders with correct observation of complicated eye contact etiquette. A mound of other detail confirmed the cultural immersion beyond doubt. I don’t think this is hugely important – the Herheim production I saw recently succeeded despite a couple of minor cultural bloopers (always dangerous to cover the sets with kanji, which were spelling something out in er, Chinese). And I shouldn’t get started on Minghella. Does it matter if this detail is right? Possibly not. But so much more professional and culturally sensitive if it is.

Musically this performance was on a Volksoper level, though with more technically secure singing. There was not a sour note to be heard all evening and phrasing was well-supported across the cast. Respectable, confident singing compensated for whatever leads Adriana Kohútková and Peter Berger lacked in tonal refulgence, and both deserve much credit for taking Konwitschny’s Personenregie and running with it so committedly on a Monday evening rep night. Monika Fabianová’s powerfully sung Suzuki also stood out, and as enabler in the first act and user in the second, hers was also an absorbing acting performance in its own disturbing way. Conductor Paolo Gatto didn’t lay on the score too thick and led some singer-friendly playing from the SND’s opera orchestra, who play this music like it’s Rusalka, interestingly enough.

Images arent of the cast I saw:


  1. Interesting review - I take offence though to your implied expectation of something less from the Slovak National Theatre in terms of the vocal quality of the performance. You failed to mention that the Sharpless you heard was the Internationally successful baritone Dalibor Jenis. Peter Berger (Pinkerton) is a young tenor at the beginning of a very interesting career - he has just returned from the New National Theatre, Tokyo were he sang the Prince in Rusalka in a new production by Paul Curran and he will sing in Glyndebourne this I think this young tenor has plenty of "tonal refulgence". Adriana Kohutkova (Butterfly) is one of the finest sopranos to come out of Slovakia in many years (and there have been a lot of great Slovak singers...Beneckova, Gruberova, Dvorsky etc). She is in constant demand and sings all over Europe!!! Perhaps you should plan to shop more often in Tesco and Carrefour!!!!

  2. I wouldn't put Kohútková in that company, but she was good. Just not as good as Melba Ramos at the Volksoper in November, who looked as if she might be going places around 15 years ago (and on the strength of this performance I have no idea why that didn't happen). Point taken about Jenis, but he only had an OK evening. If I could have written more about anybody it would have been Berger. But I'm going to stick with what I wrote about this being on a respectably high and consistent level across the ensemble with no one stand-out performance. No slight to the Slovak National Theatre's roster intended! I look forward very much to their Konwitschny Onegin next month.

    Incidentally the garrulous Slovakian lady I was sat next to thought that the singing and acting picked up when Peter Dvorský showed up about 15 minutes in. I found the performances committed from the start so can't say I agree. But if Dvorský has the Muti effect without scaring the sh*t out of the singers, as she suggested, then it's all good. Like the Holy Grail of watchful eyes, if only the Wiener Staatsoper could have him on loan...

    1. Dvorsky is certainly a great asset to the theatre and a great supporter of all of his singers (me included!!) Obviously you are a fan of Konwitschny's work but don't stop at his productions in Bratislava, there are some really interesting productions at the Slovak National Theatre and whether it is a premier or just a repertoire reprise - the whole ensemble always gives 100% and is committed to giving the audience a great night in the theatre!!!

  3. Thanks for your comment Louise. This was indeed my first time at the SND - though the low expectations the first commenter mentioned, I really ought to clarify, were quite specifically about the age of the production and how well it would revive, rather than a generalisation about the house or its singers. And my worries, I'm happy to say, were completely misplaced - there are so many things the SND could teach the Wiener Staatsoper about revival direction it's not even funny.

    Re. more interesting productions - any tips? Must admit that apart from Konwitschny most of the directors are unfamiliar to me.

    1. The first comment was from me as well - before I updated my profile (technically deficient soprano!!) Even though I work at SND, I must (shamefully) admit that I haven't seen every production but I particularly like the work of Jozef Bednárik (Turandot, Don Giovanni and Fille du Regiment) and last year there was a new production of I Due Foscari that I think is really beautiful - not because of the treatment of the story but the design is very interesting. Chudovsky is the director, but I think the beauty of the production is more due to the team he assembled than to his work as the director. There are of course the traditional stagings as well, which tend to "put more bums on seats" than the more modern interpretations - in any case I think there is a good mix of old any new in Bratislava and if you like opera, a trip from Vienna to Bratislava is certainly no hardship!!

  4. Thanks for the Bednárik recommendation - I would come and see his (and your) Turandot tomorrow but there's a concert in Vienna I already have a ticket for. His Don Giovanni looks interesting.

    1. His Giovanni is my favourite...I used to sing Donna Anna in the production - when I was young and sweet ;-)

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