seattle opera

‘Madame Butterfly’ review: caged dreams

While confronting social and cultural issues, Seattle Opera's new production of Puccini's classic doesn't neglect the music

by ANGELA ALLEN

Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly debuted in 1904 and it has been jerking tears ever since. The opera classic remains resilient and fresh when done well, as it is in this Seattle Opera production playing through Aug. 19 at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.

The opera has heartbreakingly lyrical music, a heartrending story — and Butterfly. She is a huge character: tough, demanding, sweet, beautiful, desirable, playful – and stubborn. She refuses to  face reality until she can’t do anything about it. She is Puccini’s bona fide tragic heroine, unlike Mimi in La Boheme, whom we know will die. Mimi is not destroyed by herself, by some tragic flaw; she dies of tuberculosis. On the other hand, Butterfly crafts much of her own fate.

Yasko Sato (Cio-Cio-San) and Renée Rapier (Suzuki). Photo: Jacob Lucas.

Puccini created exquisite music and knew how to seduce us by synching it with dramatic moments. The music is chock full of mellifluous tunes and gorgeous arias. But it’s as complex as Japanese customs. Underneath, like a bass line, the music suggests caution and treachery. The ominous boom of the drums reminds us that all is not well.

The opera’s plot is as familiar as the first act’s “love duet” between Butterfly and Lt. Pinkerton. But here goes again: A mid-level American sailor (Lt. Pinkerton sung alternately by Dominick Chenes and Alexey Dolgov) stops off in Japan, marries Butterfly when she’s 15 with help of a marriage broker, sets up house with her, impregnates her, and leaves. Butterfly believes he will return for her and her son and their life as a family will commence. She holds on to this fantasy despite warnings and reasoning from those around her. She has another suitor, she has ways out. But she shrugs him off and turns her back. No one can convince her that her dreams are doomed.

Pinkerton returns three years later when Butterfly is 18, not to again take up housekeeping with her, but to retrieve their son, Sorrow, with his new American wife, Kate (Sarah Mattox). And when the moment arrives, he lets his wife do the dirty work by telling Butterfly her son will go to America. Meanwhile he has a minor breakdown. It’s clear why Pinkerton gets booed over and over again at curtain calls even if the role is sung by decent tenors.

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Today seems a good time to introduce you to one of our newest correspondents, C.S. Eliot. When the movie Kedi: The Cats of Istanbul prowled into town (it’s landed at Cinema 21 after a couple of sold-out screenings at the Portland International Film Festival) we found ourselves looking for just the right sort of writer to respond to the film’s unusual subject matter, a writer with inside knowledge of the peculiarities of the feline world. And C.S. made a poetic plea to speak up.

Well, all right, it was a yowl. C.S., we regret to report, is an imperious sort, given to stark pronouncements and prone to making unseemly demands on the management. Thus, forthwith, C.S.’s first dispatch for us, ‘Kedi’ review: Turkish delight.

The streetwise cats of Istanbul.

To tell the truth, this partnership is a work in progress. We’re not sure C.S. understands the concept of objectivity at all. But C.S. makes no bones about his opinions (he prefers to leave the bones for the dogs), and C.S. will speak out. There’s no stopping him, really, although you can slow him down if you put out a bowl of tuna juice. Let’s stipulate that a good writer is not necessarily a saint.

In the case of Kedi, not only is C.S. an expert on the subject, he also has a talented collaborator, longtime ArtsWatch correspondent Maria Choban. She speaks Cat semi-fluently and is adept at translating the pith of C.S.’s opinions. We see their partnership as vital to our coverage of the next touring production of Cats to hit town (lyrics and original concept by C.S. Eliot’s distant relative T.S.), and to the Puss in Boots scene in Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. And if someone in town will please put up a production of the musical Archy & Mehitabel, C.S. likely will be our representative in the reviewer’s box. We’ve tried, but we just can’t seem to come up with a literate cockroach who’ll work for what we can pay.

 


 

A GLIMPSE INSIDE THIS WEEK’S DATEBOOK:

 

Companhia Urbana de Dança at White Bird. Photo: Renato Mangolin

Companhia Urbana de Dança. White Bird brings the energetic Brazilian dance troupe to the Newmark Theatre for shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Born in the shanty towns and suburbs of Rio, the company blends hip-hop, urban, and contemporary dance into an Afro-Brazilian stew.

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“Katya Kabanova” review: Tragic thrills

Set in a world that might be pre-Bolshevik Russia or Cold War America, Seattle Opera’s first production of a rarely staged Leos Janacek opera might even draw tears from Puccini fans

by ANGELA ALLEN

Unoccupied seats are often the price an opera company pays when it tries something new and off the oft-beaten path of French and Italian opera. There were plenty of empty rows opening night, February 25, at the Seattle Opera, but perhaps by the end of the Katya Kabanova run, seats will fill up in McCaw Hall. The opera continues March 8, 10 and 11.

Most big American opera companies endlessly repeat the same old top ten greatest hits, so with this unusual choice, new-ish Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang (he’s been in Seattle for almost three years replacing longtime emperor Speight Jenkins) shows his guts, his imagination, his unconventional opera savvy, and his faith in Seattle audiences. And he delivers a tear-jerking tragedy that might even encourage Puccini fans to grab some of those available seats.

Melody Moore (Katya) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Katya Kabanova.’ Photo: Jacob Lucas.

Katya, never before staged in Seattle, is one of Leos Janacek’s (1854-1928) later tragic operas. It debuted in 1921 in Brno in the present-day Czech Republic, and this SO version is wholly new. You might have heard The Cunning Little Vixen; bets are that opera begins and ends your Janacek repertoire.

The Czech composer, born in Moravia, was a contemporary of Giacomo Puccini, but his musical influence is much less powerful than the Italian’s. Katya lacks the familiarity and unreserved melodiousness of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly or of SO’s previous production, Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviatathree tragedies that center on trapped young women. Janacek’s work didn’t make it across the Atlantic until fairly recently, and Europe, even the Czech Republic and former Czechoslovakia, had been reluctant to embrace him until 1950 or so, Lang said in his recent SO podcast about the opera.

Fortunately, SO does a creative job of making the piece come alive for today’s audiences.

The Seattle production is performed in Czech, admittedly the first time I’ve heard an opera sung in that language, a far cry from fluid, easily articulated Italian. Native Czech speaker Oliver von Dohnanyi, a Slovak maestro at Seattle Opera for the first time, conducted, and it was his pulse that captured the rhythm of the spoken language in the music. There are no repeated lines. The sung text sounds both conversational and theatrical, and so despite the unfamiliar music, interspersed with folk tunes, we are drawn into the story immediately.

Katya did not seem overwhelmingly foreign to me, though I am an unabashed Puccini fan. Certainly, it was different from Italian tragedies, but we can digest and appreciate more than we think, especially when the story tells a universal, timeless tragedy.

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Let’s see, now, where were we? Big inauguration, American carnage, big threats, bellicose speech. Bigger protest, millions of women, pink hats, sea to shining sea. Twitter wars unabated. Health care on the skids. War on reporters. Alternative facts.

And, oh, yes, tucked away there in the corner: a vow to kill the National Endowment for the Arts. And kill the National Endowment for the Humanities. And “privatize” the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which has mostly been privatized already, anyway. Cost-cutting. Getting tough on the budget. Victory for the taxpayers. (NEA 2016 budget: $148 million. NEH 2016 budget: $148 million. Percentage of total federal budget, each: 0.003. CPB 2016 funding via federal government: $445 million. Percentage of total federal budget, all three agencies: less than 0.02. Federal budget 2015 for military marching bands, $437 million. Taxpayer expense to build or renovate National Football League stadiums, past 20 years, mostly through local and regional taxes: more than $7 billion.)

A fiscal conservative or libertarian can make an honest argument for eliminating the NEA and NEH on grounds that they’re simply not an appropriate use of taxpayer funding; culture should be funded privately. Here at ArtsWatch we don’t agree with that analysis. We believe there are many valid reasons for government financial aid to culture, and that the payoffs to taxpayers are many, from economic – in healthy cities, the arts are job and money multipliers – to educational and much more. Historically, consider the continuing dividends of the WPA and other cultural projects underwritten by the federal government during the Great Depression of the 1930s: In Oregon, for instance, Timberline Lodge.

But there’s much more to this move than a courteous philosophical/economic disagreement. The move to defund the NEA has a long and embattled history, dating at least to the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s and ’90s, when a resurgent right-wing political movement convinced that artists were mostly a pack of degenerate liberals discovered that attacking the arts was a splendid red-meat issue for its base. They didn’t succeed in killing off the national endowments, but they did weaken them. The new administration seems to think it can finally finish them off. That would weaken state agencies such as the Oregon Arts Commission, which gets funding from the NEA, and in turn weaken arts organizations across the state, which get money from the OAC and, often more importantly, a stamp of approval that helps them raise private donations. Killing the endowments would be a rash move that would save hardly anything in the national budget and cause deep mischief to the nation’s well-being. It strikes us as petty and vindictive and, frankly, foolish.

It’s also a reach that might fail. Republicans like culture, too, and understand its value, and often support it generously. Traditionally, that has included Republican politicians. Will they fall in line with the new administration, or will they quietly scuttle its gambit? Keep your eye on this thing. We will, too.

 


 

Duffy Epstein and Dana Green in the premiere of the D.B. Cooper play “db.” Photo: Owen Carey

THE FERTILE GROUND FESTIVAL, Portland’s sprawling celebration of new works in theater, dance, solo performance, circus arts, musical theater, comedy, and other things that ordinarily happen on a stage, continues through January 29. ArtsWatch writers have been out and about, writing their impressions. You can catch up with some of them below:

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Seattle Opera’s ‘La Traviata’: Stripped-down tragedy

Shorn of lavish accoutrements and other inessentials, revelatory 21st century production gains force and focus

By ANGELA ALLEN

There is nowhere to hide in this Traviata. Running only an hour and 50 minutes, German director Peter Konwitschny’s spare version, playing through January 28 at Seattle Opera, focuses keenly and persistently on its characters, on Giuseppe Verdi’s lush and ever-building music, and on the extreme emotions surrounding dying Violetta. She has struggled, against all odds, to change her “fallen” life, where she is kept as a courtesan in snarky Parisian society, to one of true love with the naïve and pure-hearted Alfredo.

Verdi created a tragic heroine out of a whore, and in 1853, when the opera was first performed in Italy, that was a revolutionary artistic move. The company has staged eight productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s popular perennial since 1967. This one is worth fitting into your repertoire.

Corinne Winters as Violetta in Seattle Opera’s 2017 ‘La Traviata’ at McCaw Hall. Photo: Philip Newton.

Konwitschny’s version has no intermission and almost no scenery or props other than Alfredo’s pile of books and layers of red curtains, where characters pass in and out of scenes, and finally out of life. The blood-red curtains and Violetta’s red dress whisper and sometimes scream tragedy, drama, fallen woman, la traviata! But if the characters try to hide behind the curtains, and the chorus representing Parisian society behind its hypocrisy, they can’t.

Without the distractions of lavish costumes and scenery seen in most major productions, it’s easier to feel the piece as timeless, place-less and yes, in the moment. We’re right there with Violetta. From the opening party where she is hypocritically “welcomed” back after a bout with illness to Parisian high society, through her love affair with the bookish Alfredo and her sacrifice of her true love thanks to the persuasive Germont to her final fade away, we’re there. The simple contemporary costumes ground us. (Alfredo even has patches on the elbows of his baggy jacket.)

From beginning to end, the opera is all Violetta’s, sung on opening night by Corinne Winters and performed on alternate dates by Angel Blue. The SO no longer features “gold” and “silver” casts; performances alternate with two gold casts, new general director Aidan Lang says.

Winters sang Violetta in the original Konwitschny production at the English National Opera in 2013, and her familiarity with the role allowed her to perform it with full-blown confidence. With so many arias and duets – many when Violetta is taken down by her worsening consumption and sings on the floor or in other compromised positions – her secure strong soprano resonates. She does everything right in the role.

Winters embraced Violetta so thoroughly that we don’t pity her. We are sad that she has to die, that she loses her true love, but she goes out with dignity, backing away triumphantly into those red curtains.

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Seattle Opera review: ‘The Marriage of Figaro’

Vibrant production of Mozart’s opera about changing times signals the company’s changing of the guard

by ANGELA ALLEN

SEATTLE – At last we see a full-fledged production led by Seattle Opera’s new general director Aidan Lang. Hired 18 months ago to fill Speight Jenkins’ large shoes, Lang shows with this Marriage of Figaro that he can put together the pieces of a production with genius and charm. What a vibrant Figaro it is! Its sets, singing, timing, costumes and supra-titles make this production, which continues through January 30, as far from ho-hum as one of the 10 most often performed operas could be.

Refreshing times for the opera company, refreshing times for the Mozart favorite.

Shenyang (Figaro) and Nuccia Focile (Susanna) in 'The Marriage of Figaro.' Photo: Jacob Lucas.

Shenyang (Figaro) and Nuccia Focile (Susanna) in ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’ Photo: Jacob Lucas.

This beloved “buffa” opera, the first of three collaborations between W. Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte – the others are Cosi fan Tutte and Don Giovannihas so much going for it as a comedy, even when the production isn’t stellar like this one. I saw one in Dresden, Germany, this fall that was much less engaging, done up in goofy overblown costumes. But it was still OK, though the laughs paled in comparison to those the SO production drew.

It is delightful enough that servants trick nobility and everyone ends up with the right partner after three hours (plus intermission) of mix-ups, faux pas and shenanigans. We love to guffaw at the bumblers because we are a lot like them, right?

Bernarda Bobro as Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro. Photo: Philip Newto.

Bernarda Bobro as Countess Almaviva in ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

And the music, directed so well by Mozart maestro Gary Thor Wedow, is almost all in major keys, manna to the ears. Arias, duets, a nonet flow like water throughout, even if some characters sing in unison that life is horrible and the others are sure it’s going along swimmingly. Sopranos Nuccia Focile (Susanna) and Bernarda Bobra (Countess Almaviva) were agile and beguiling actors and singers. They could have been twins except for the musical differences in their parts. They led the show.

Chinese bass Shenyang (one name) sang Figaro beautifully yet a bit stiffly. He wasn’t my male performer of the evening. That honor goes to baritone Morgan Smith as pompous and ridiculous Count Almaviva. His seamless comic timing was unimpeachable, his final-act Dracula slant hilarious as he crept about trying to meet up with Susanna in his black cape and out-sized pompadour. (A “silver” cast performs the five main roles in alternate performances, but I didn’t hear them.)

At the opera’s 1786 debut, the social order was changing, with the French Revolution around the corner and traditions such as the “droit de seigneur” (the feudal lord has the right to sleep with a servant on her wedding night) being challenged. So it goes in this piece: much of Figaro and Susanna’s energy is spent circumventing this custom.

Nuccia Focile (Susanna), Morgan Smith (Count Almaviva) and Karin Mushegain (Cherubino) in 'The Marriage of Figaro.' Photo: Tuffer.

Nuccia Focile (Susanna), Morgan Smith (Count Almaviva) and Karin Mushegain (Cherubino) in ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’ Photo: Tuffer.

Lang portrays the late 18th century and its changing times in period clothes. But he toys with the time period. The costumes are constructed of denim, broadcloth, chambray and cotton twills (quite beautifully – you’ve never seen these non-luxe fabrics look quite this gorgeous, especially when it comes to the Count’s sleek coats. The Countess’ dressing gown (above in photo)  is made of fine cotton cheesecloth). Aside from the denim, to keep things au courant, Lang and costume designer Elizabeth Whiting dress the servants in tennis shoes. The puppyish horn dog Cherubino, performed by “pants” singer Karin Mushegain, wears high-toppers. Shoes say a lot!

If I were forced to choose only one astonishing thing about the opera (other than the music), I’d pick the sets, designed by New Zealander Robin Rawstorne. He collaborated on this production with Lang, who was general director of the New Zealand Opera from 2006-2013, in New Zealand, where it was a hit in 2010. The sets are simple and spare – almost Shaker-like – and their huge sliding doors allow for multiple scenes and configurations throughout the production. Once again, agility is the controlling metaphor. The sets’ pieces fit together as well as the pieces (sets, singers, costumes) of the entire production.

A detail not often recognized: SO’s Jonathan Dean, who wrote the supra-titles, keeps them from 18th-century stodginess. The opera is sung in Italian, but the witty captions flash in updated English.

If this Figaro is an indication of what’s to come, we can look forward to an infusion of freshness and fun at SO. Certainly, Jenkins did many engaging and edgy operas (Amelia, Electra, Porgy and Bess, and of course The Ring series) in his 31-year tenure, but this Figaro was genuinely funny. We also can look forward to Lang’s first curated season, 2016-17. It includes such rarely seen operas as Count Ory and Katya Kabanova as well as the more familiar Hansel & Gretel, La Traviata and The Magic Flute. 

Seattle Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro continues at McCaw Hall Jan. 23, 24 (matinee), 27, 29 and 30. Tickets are available online.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She pursues poetry and photography and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools. 

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Kelly Cae Hogan as Salome, Alan Woodrow as Herod, Rosalind Plowright as Herodias in Portland Opera's "Salome" © Cory Weaver / Portland Opera

Kelly Cae Hogan as Salome, Alan Woodrow as Herod,
Rosalind Plowright as Herodias in Portland Opera’s “Salome” © Cory Weaver /
Portland Opera

by MARIA CHOBAN

It was the best of crimes, March 1986, Seattle, sitting in the car with my friend having just witnessed Richard Strauss’s double-murder opera “Salome,” both of us so stunned by the brutal experience we sat in silence for a long time, me shaking due to the shock or cold, it doesn’t matter which.

It was the worst of crimes, last Friday in Portland’s Keller Auditorium, my companion turning to me at the finale of “Salome” and shrugging “I don’t see what all the fuss is about.” I knew it was coming within the first two minutes of the title character’s entrance, having absorbed the blow of a boring, incomprehensibly acted Salome. But the crime was the betrayal I felt because the bloodiest of the sexually bloody, what I took for granted as a bullet-proof opera, was neutered by what I initially chalked up to bad acting, eliciting from my companion not my anger at a trashed production but something much much worse: indifference.

WHAT THE HELL???? What went wrong?

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