A Butterfly with laughter and tears

It’s like no Madama Butterfly I’ve ever seen. The new Canadian Opera Company production is really the same one they’ve been staging for years, yet very different in its new incarnation. There are two parallel casts performing Puccini’s intercultural tear-jerker over the 3 weeks between Oct 10 and 31st.

While I like Brian Macdonald –a director and choreographer I admire so much that I invited him to be a keynote speaker back in 2005 at the University of Toronto’s Festival of Original Theatre—I wonder if it’s his doing.  Wonderful as this production is, one first seen in 1990, with elegant sets from Susan Benson (because it stays out of your way, allowing you a direct connection with the performances & the depths of this wonderful opera), I’ve seen it many times, but never saw anything remotely like what I saw today.

I have a funny story to tell that might give you some idea. My wife observed that she’s never seen so many men crying. But that’s not the joke. At one point, when I was convulsing, trying not to loudly sob into the silence, I heard a voice behind me, an older lady saying rather loudly in a theater that was dead silent but for the crying, at a very tender moment, “elég hosszú”. That’s Hungarian and it’s just my good fortune that I understood.  I went from barely controlling my sobs, to tears of laughter as I completely lost it, convulsing with mad giggles.

Of course what she was saying can loosely be translated as “it’s kind of long”, but I suppose even at her advanced age it must have been her first Butterfly.

Actually it’s one of the shortest I’ve seen, with a break-neck pace from conductor Patrick Lange. I say that as someone who probably knows this score better than any opera, a score i’ve played from one end to the other. My brother sang one of his first solo roles with the COC as the Imperial Commisioner, sung today by Iain MacNeil, making a very solid and tuneful debut. Sometime later that same sibling would sing Sharpless at least once at the O’Keefe Centre, sung today by Gregory Dahl.

I’ve seen a lot of performances of this opera, some live and some on video, and I say without hesitation that today’s was the best I’ve ever seen. As my wife already reported, I wasn’t the only one being moved, in a production that didn’t really do that much for me the last time I saw it.

What’s the difference? There are two people responsible as far as I can tell.

(l-r) Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and Kelly Kaduce as Cio-Cio San in the Canadian Opera Company production of Madama Butterfly, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper

(l-r) Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and Kelly Kaduce as Cio-Cio San in the Canadian Opera Company production of Madama Butterfly, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper

Chief culprit is Kelly Kaduce. I suspected I was in for something special when I responded to the COC’s invitation. As a subscriber I already have tickets to see the “A” cast (who opened the show Friday night); my subscription tickets are at the end of the run, so I chose to see the “B” cast who opened today.

I feel I am channelling Prince Yamadori, a character who makes a brief appearance in Act II. I’ve always felt a wistful attachment to him, the man whose proposal to Butterfly offers a possible escape from her predicament, a pathway she chooses to ignore. Imagine my surprise when Kelly Kaduce said it was her favourite part of the opera in her interview. Yet I was expecting that scene (ha I almost called it “our scene”) to be a highlight, in an act that’s otherwise depressingly sad, because –at least in the productions I have seen—Butterfly walks around with a cloud of misery hanging over her head, even as she claims to be hopeful.

When you’ve seen an opera countless times you think you know what it means, you think you know its possibilities. Today I had my mind opened, if not blown by what I saw. For much of Act II, Butterfly –meaning Kelly Kaduce—is finding laughs. She’s especially funny in her scene with Yamadori, as she mocks him before dismissing him.
Let me add one tiny detail, one that is usually forgotten after this bombshell is delivered to us in Act I. Butterfly is 15 years old. But does anyone ever play her in a manner that resembles a woman under the age of 40? Nope. Usually you see a diva sailing around the stage like an imitation of a Japanese battleship: ponderous, serious, vaguely Eastern, and with no possibility of humour. But oh my, the lines are actually funny, especially if played with the vigour of a teenager. It needs to be said: Kaduce is a believable teenager. While she may be older in Act II she’s still supposed to be a teenager, and that’s what Kaduce gives us. It’s as though I’ve never seen this opera before, considering how different some scenes were as a result.

When –in a scene that has long been one of my favourites, a scene i’ve played many times on the piano with the aforementioned sibling—Sharpless attempts to read Pinkerton’s letter to Butterfly, the dynamic changes completely if you have a bouncy hyper teenager interrupting and jumping up throughout. It’s been a very dark scene in other productions I’ve seen. When Sharpless delivers his electrifying question “what if he never comes back” it can be just one more in a series of dark moments, if everyone is dark dark dark from the opening of Act II. But if Suzuki is worried, while Butterfly’s “un bel di” is sung with genuine faith, and youth? And joy? and energy?  Different story. Sharpless has this secret that can’t penetrate the comedy of the scene with Yamadori, that’s his and his alone, until the kick in the gut of his direct question. The opera’s tone shifts decisively at this point, even if it does a minor reset when the boat is sighted. Butterfly doesn’t seem so forlorn nor the end so much of a foregone conclusion.

Need I say: this is by far the best Butterfly I’ve ever seen, because Kaduce is the best Butterfly I’ve ever seen or imagined.  I had no idea the opera could work so well.

Another big reason, subsidiary but still important, is the work of Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki. The voice is delicious especially in her low notes, her reactions wonderful to watch. The convulsive moment I spoke of –that led to the comedy from the Hungarian dowager—was actually DeShong’s big moment. She spoke of her favourite moment in the interview I posted last night:

Dramatically, there is a small moment between Suzuki and Butterfly that always resonates strongly with me. When Butterfly enters and discovers Sharpless and Kate Pinkerton, Suzuki breaks down. Butterfly comes to Suzuki and says that she shouldn’t cry. She says that Suzuki has been good. In this moment, I always gently shake my head “no”. I think Suzuki always feels she should have done more to protect Butterfly. It highlights the constant struggle between duty and friendship, that Suzuki feels throughout the opera.

I watched this scene and lost it because it reminds me of moments of profound recognition that have a kind of tragic dimension outside the story. I think the reason those moments are so powerful is because the pattern of suffering is momentarily interrupted, as someone notices and comments on it, and we in the audience can relate to that recognition, our own experience curiously mirrored onstage. It’s heartbreaking both because we’re watching Suzuki break down, and because sweet adorable Butterfly –at this moment played like a delicate child—is seeking for once to take care of Suzuki rather than raging or cracking up herself (although there’s plenty of time for that later).

There are other people in the show, but it’s really all about Lange, Kaduce and DeShong.

Andrea Carè is not a bad Pinkerton, even if he has an appoggiatura approach to many of his high notes, a technique that’s flawless if you’re okay with someone hitting a high note via a nearby note just below it.

Gregory Dahl is excellent as Sharpless, a role that’s sometimes very thankless, a passive observer, a giver of advice that’s almost 100% ignored. I’ve seen more strident approaches –for instance, some show concern or anger in the microseconds when Pinkerton speaks of marrying a real American wife just before the arrival of the bride—but we didn’t get that in Dahl’s reading. I think I like this better actually, because if Sharpless sees what a jerk Pinkerton really is –as happens in the Mitterand film—you end up with a story that’s way too sad too early, and therefore makes Butterfly look like a fool. I’d compare it to productions of Otello I have seen where Iago is so strong that as a result the Moor is made to look like a patsy rather than a hero (thinking especially of the unfortunate era of Sherrill Milnes in the role and as a result killing the tragedy). I need to believe Butterfly is either smart to love Pinkerton, or at least, that she’s a child who had reason to believe in Pinkerton, which is something Kaduce achieves, and which isn’t undermined by either Dahl’s understated approach, nor Carè.

I wonder if I can be trusted. I’ve been raving about Falstaff this week (a pair of reviews) so I may be sounding like a groupie or someone who swallowed the Kool-ade. But I admire the Verdi opera, love the work of two or three key performers. This is better, unexpected and in a sense like bringing something back from the dead, an opera from which i never expected such depth. Kaduce accomplished a miracle, not least because I came out of that theatre happy. During the curtain call she was again as vigorous as an 18 year old, even kissing her Pinkerton in a moment that I am certain made everyone smile (especially recalling another production I saw where people did some ironic booing and hissing for someone who can be seen as the villain). Can you blame me for thinking of Yamadori? I love this woman, and discussed with my wife traveling to see her sing no matter where that might be.

But for now? She’s here in Toronto!

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8 Responses to A Butterfly with laughter and tears

  1. This is very interesting and I’m now really looking forward to seeing Kaduce. The reaction on Friday night was not floods of tears. In fact I’ve never seen a FSC audience so emotionally flat at the end of a performance. There were the usual small knots of people doing a standing O but mostly it was just polite (Canadian polite) applause which died away before the curtain came down on the curtain calls. Something I’d never seen before either – there were people still in their seats simply not applauding. The emotional temperature in the house was extraordinarily low; especially for an opening night.

    • barczablog says:

      Interesting indeed. I wonder if there were any viruses still floating around (so many people cough cough unwell in Toronto the past couple of weeks). I had a bit of a coughing fit for a bit singing in church this morning (during rehearsal thank goodness, not during the service), a tickle that’s hanging around after the cold i had in September that hasn’t quite faded. I’m looking forward to seeing Racette et al towards the end of the run.

  2. Looks to be a wonderful production.. 🙂 I am sure this would create both laughter and tears.. Such a wonderful story.. Many thanks for sharing.. Enjoy your week.

    • barczablog says:

      Thank you Sue, i’m off to a great start. Monday of course was Thanksgiving (the Canadian version… we have a short growing season, so our harvest is completed sooner), and i am feeling so fortunate, so grateful.

      • A belated Happy Thanksgiving.. I always forget about your Holiday’s over there and in the USA.. Gratitude is something we each should embrace.. We are so so fortunate when we compare life with some..
        Enjoy the rest of your week.. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Addio Butterfly | barczablog

  4. Pingback: Beethoven 250: recalling Brian Macdonald’s Diabelli Variations | barczablog

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