Addio Butterfly

I saw the “A” cast of the Canadian Opera Company’s Madama Butterfly tonight. There are two singers undertaking Mrs Butterfly (or she might tell you “Mrs Pinkerton” if you were to ask her) in the cast, a pair of BF Pinkertons and a pair of Sharplesses as well. In three weeks since October 10th a dozen shows (including tomorrow’s) will have gone off, six from each cast. Tonight’s will be followed by the last showing from the Kaduce / Secco / Dahl trio tomorrow. Falstaff and Opera Atelier’s Alcina also close Saturday November 1st, ending a spectacular few weeks.

In the lobby we talked about the topic everyone’s talking about, Jian Ghomeshi and “consent”. Ugly stories fascinate and bemuse us, which is not so different from Alcina (a fantasy of women holding men against their will) or Butterfly (a story of a very young woman giving consent, believing the lies of an older man from far away). The recipe could be “pour nasty story into heart, add music and stir”: stir the heart that is.

The chemistry in that “A” cast, comprised of slightly more famous singers, is somewhat different than in the other cast whom I reviewed back on Oct 11th.
Patricia Racette is a very strong Butterfly, with clear ideas of all the important parts of this huge difficult role. She is decisive in her big arias and moves brilliantly with the orchestra at all the climactic moments.  For a sucker like me, it’s time to turn on the waterworks, and i’m grateful.

Dwayne Croft is everything I want to see in Sharpless. He’s strong in the lower register but soars effortlessly when necessary. Where Pinkerton is the ugly American, Croft embodies all the decency of middle-America, a face that’s so wonderfully reactive I was watching him as much as I was watching Butterfly. He was an avatar of goodness counter-balancing a story of evil, both with his smooth baritone and his tormented body-language.

Elizabeth DeShong was again fabulous to listen to and to watch as Suzuki, and as the only principal required to sing all twelve performances, was the rock both of the Butterflies leaned on, which couldn’t have been easy considering some of the divergences between the two stars. I suppose it helps that she loves what she’s doing. Both DeShong & Croft wore their hearts shamelessly on their sleeves, which is not a bad thing in such a heart-wrenching work.

I’m going to say something controversial now.  We’ve all been staring at a picture of singers from an earlier run of Brian Macdonald’s production, a fabulous photo that’s been central to publicity for the COC for this production.  It’s a reminder to me.

Madama Butterfly, Canadian Opera Company October 2009 with Adina Nitescu and David Pomeroy (photo: Michael Cooper)

I saw David Pomeroy sing Pinkerton a few years ago and he was good. I saw Andrea Carè Oct 11th and he was fairly good too, although I think Pomeroy was better. But tonight? While there might be a virus to blame, I was struck by a couple of truths.
1) Some tenor roles are a perfect fit for the special personality of the tenor. Canio in Pagliacci, The Duke in Rigoletto, Don José in Carmen, and especially our friend Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton are jerks, people who are very hard to like, people who put me in mind –again—of the whole Ghomeshi discussion. (and for someone like me who’s a nice guy, makes me wonder: if I were more of a prick would my life have turned out differently? Nice guys really do seem to finish last). And so one can get away with a lot. If the tenor stands there, self-absorbed, unwilling to act, and sings a few high notes, he’s forgiven. It may be a pathetic waste of space, a drain of the energy of the production, but so what? He’s a tenor (and I can say this because I too am such a self-absorbed monster), and so we don’t expect much humanity.
2) This is the really controversial thought, partly inspired by thoughts I had at the Talisker Players concert Tuesday, listening to Virginia Hatfield. The COC uses the Ensemble studio as a training ground and I suppose that’s not a bad thing. But then singers are more or less shown the door. If Pomeroy –a Canadian—can sing the role well, why are we suffering a mediocre non-Canadian tonight? There seems to be a curious phenomenon at the COC right now. The Canadians who are being cast are amazing, and I mean seriously astonishingly amazing. Gerald Finley, Russell Braun, Adrienne Pieczonka, Jane Archibald, Michael Schade, and (in his two awesome appearances before retirement) Ben Heppner aren’t just competent. These performances we’ve seen in Toronto (Archibald’s Zerbinetta and Semele, Pieczonka’s Ariadne & Emilia, Finley’s Falstaff, Braun’s ongoing parade of lyrical loveliness, Heppner’s Tristan & Peter Grimes, Schade’s Tito) are arguably the best in the world right now. Some of the Americans are magnificent (Kaduce, Croft, Racette), but by and large there are Canadians available who should be getting experience singing roles that often go to mediocre imports. If the imports are as wonderful as Kaduce or Croft or Racette? Great. Let’s set aside the brilliant singers who obviously earn their place. I’m talking about many of the other parts. Given the choice between a mediocre Canadian and a mediocre foreigner, I think there’s an obligation to cast a Canadian, whether or not that person is from the Ensemble Studio or not.  Maybe i’m overdue saying this, because Alexander Neef is doing a better job in this regard than Mansouri or Bradshaw, two Artistic Directors who regularly brought in mediocre foreigners.  Maybe i’ve been emboldened by what i am seeing, such as the amazing all-Canadian Falstaff that closes Saturday, or the gradual raising of the bar of virtuosity across town at Opera Atelier, in a mostly Canadian cast conducted, directed & choreographed by Canadians.

Okay end of tirade. I hope people will not complain about Brian Macdonald’s production. It’s really quite good so long as the stage is peopled by adequate talent, as it has been for the past three weeks. Both casts are very good, although one moved me more.

And anchoring it all was a stunning reading from Patrick Lange leading the COC orchestra.

Halloween night is the last time they’ll put on that particular set of costumes for awhile at least.

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13 Responses to Addio Butterfly

  1. Edward Brain says:

    Leslie, I totally agree with Pinkerton (the role) being one of those characters you really don’t like. The production helps make the audience dislike Pinkerton – at the end of the opera, we hear him calling out Butterfly’s name, but he never appears on stage to see her lifeless body, making it clear that he does not understand the damage he has committed.

    I also liked the young actor portraying Sorrow in this production – the child was well behaved, and ran into Ms. Racette’s arms when he came out for his bow at the end of the opera. At least he did when I saw the production.

  2. We’ve sort of had this conversation before and while it’s hard to argue that casting mediocre Canadians is better than casting mediocre foreigners, to me the real issue is getting world class singers onto the FSC stage. If they are Canadian, terrific, but I also want to see Tom Allen and Franz-Josef Selig and Susan Graham and so on. I don’t ever want to hear on the subway platform after a show a dismissive “well that’s as good as it gets… in Toronto”. FWIW I think COC is actually doing a good job of casting Canadians in “not quite starring” roles. David Pomeroy sang Alfred in Fledermaus and Michael Colvin said to me just last night that he’s getting more work in Toronto now than he’s had in years. There have even been a few notable risks like casting Ileana M as Ellen Orford.

    • barczablog says:

      And I’m glad we’re having the conversation because it needs to happen, just like the one about Canadian composers. But Ileana was not a risk as Ellen Orford, even though she knocked it out of the park (baseball metaphor… season’s over now). I would argue that when we put a decent Canadian artist onstage and they only do a mediocre-to-okay job, even then it’s still a good investment, in the culture of the country and their/our future. Maybe the COC should make this a funding priority –bringing back Ensemble alumni– the same way they get people to fund stars in big roles. It’s also related to the programming, where certain operas –Grimes, Death in Venice and Falstaff being three that come to mind– are naturals for Canadian talent. As I said, it’s not about the great internationals such as Graham or Selig or Allen. I’m more concerned when a mediocre international takes a role. Yes casting is hit and miss, so i allow that people have bad days, and even bad years (i’d heard through the grapevine that Racette had some issues this year, but who doesn’t). The conversation –ours, John but also the broader one that is critical response and audience response– likely informs Neef’s choices. If enough people say “so nice to see those talented Canadians up there on the stage” the casting might indeed be influenced. I want to put the bee in his bonnet.

      And I really want to see Virginia Hatfield sing at the Four Seasons Centre again (among several singers).

      • There are certainly a lot of factors in play; one being that the price of getting stars on the FSC stage (Canadian or otherwise) is casting 4-5 years ahead. That’s a risk in all kinds of ways. If one is looking at younger singers one doesn’t know how they are going to develop. Sometimes you win big. I’d put Michael Fabiano in that category. Great talent spotting! OTOH you get the Heppner effect. Somebody bails on major hard to cast roles and the company scraping around for anybody who will do.

        I think there’s an issue too with some Fachs and, especially with light lyric sopranos. They come along with considerably more regularity than the King Street streetcar. As far as I know Zerlina hasn’t been cast for the spring yet but either of us could put together a list of at least a dozen young Canadians who would “knock it out of the park”. Which, sadly, means that some very good singers are going to luck out. It’s not like “mediocre foreigners” are keeping people out of those roles!

  3. barczablog says:

    So long as they keep their ears open & do their homework we likely will be the winners. What i find hard to take is mediocre Americans above all, especially when there are so many awesome Americans (alongside the Canadians). My dream is to see Adam Klein sing Parsifal in Toronto (he sang Tristan at SFO and was one of the Met’s Loge’s, very good actor, brilliant talent), still young enough to be good looking and has a voice like a young Jon Vickers. I don’t accept the default position that European is automatically better (meaning, the two stiff mediocre but somewhat Italianate Pinkertons we had in this run, and bracing myself for the assorted Germans we may hear in the Wagner that’s to come). I wonder if the COC can even afford to stage Girard’s Parsifal? It won’t be cheap. I’d pay extra. I’m eager to hear what Debus & the COC orchestra & the chorus do with that score. Gerald Finley as Amfortas? (shivers running down my spine)

    • Word is that Neef is trying to raise the dosh to do Parsifal but it will be 2018 at the earliest. Not going to do Gotterdammerung and Parsifal in one season! Again though, for a 2018/19 Parsifal one would need to be casting now to get a decent cast. My dream team would be Skelton/Finley/Pape plus Dalayman or Larsson. I can’t think of a good Canadian candidate for Kundry and both ladies mentioned arte exceptional in the role. We’ll see. They might need to do some clever scheduling too. That production is a sod to load in and out so one might prefer not to alternate it with something else.

      • barczablog says:

        Pieczonka could do an amazing Kundry even if she’s showing great caution with her instrument (not going anywhere near hochdramatisch roles from what i’ve heard). Is Kundry sufficiently different? it lies lower.

        It’s a natural for the April (easter) timeslot, but opposite what? Is there another light-set show? haha perhaps it’s a perfect time to revive the MACDONALD BUTTERFLY (that you love so much hahaha), which has such a minimal set.

        We shall see (!)

      • Greta idea. I could take the MacDonald Butterfly if performed in 20,000 gallons of blood!

  4. Or maybe we could have an Ariadne auf Naxos solution in which Parsifal and Butterfly are presented simultaneously!

    • barczablog says:

      Funny how we’re not precisely brainstorming solutions that sound cheap. I dream of Lepage coming to do something truly breath-taking. What if the COC brought us his Damnation de Faust for instance? or Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette? I suspect Lepage has ideas. But if we’re not getting brilliance (Lepage or Girard) I suspect it’s still going to be expensive. Chances are that the pathway ahead lies through the past, ie productions such as the Butterfly that are re-mounted: to avoid bankrupting the company.

      The talent –Canadian or otherwise– is expensive.

      • I suspect we will see 3 new prodns and 3 revivals for a few years at least. The financials are pretty anaemic and Neef has ambitions. He has to economise somewhere.

  5. Pingback: #UncleJohn, or COC lite: a new way to do business | barczablog

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