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In «The Dictionary of Received Ideas» Gustave Flaubert defines Opera as «Muhammad’s Paradise on Earth» while at the same time, just a few seconds earlier, he describes Italians as musicians and traitors. One hundred and fifty years later, Anthony Minghella’s only opera production does not refute the first idea and partially confirms the second one. His «Madame Butterfly» – a joint production of the British National Opera (winner of The 2006 Laurence Olivier Theatre Award), The Metropolitan Opera and Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet - has been played in high definition in the world's cinemas and allowed to take a very close look at one of Puccini’s most marvelous productions.
Photo credits © 2009 Marty Sohl /Metropolitan Opera
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My deepest emotions were conjured up by the final scene when madam Butterfly kills herself after performing the famous «Tu Tu Piccolo Iddio». The intensely emotional and angelic voice of the American Soprano, Patricia Racette casts a spell on the audience filling their hearts with compassion towards a woman determined to take her life. The outstretched hands in the winged sleeves of her white kimono abruptly pull apart the light white screens and she finds herself all alone in total darkness. In that darkness the stabbing of her dagger becomes a symbolic gesture. The combination of reality and symbolism is Sir Anthony Minghella’s trade mark (he is the well known author of the film «The English Patient» that nearly beat “Titanic” at the Oscars). In his opera, Minghella achieves a transformation of a melodrama into a real drama. He does that in such a delicate manner that what appears to be traditional on the surface is actually a completely new innovation. This is evident even in the way the aria ‘Tu Tu Piccolo Iddio’ was done.

Photo credits © 2009 Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera

We can see in the context of that scene that 20th century opera productions have not changed much, despite the fact that the great performers of Cio Cio San's part have always embodied a perfect combination of vocal and theatrical talent. For several decades, the part has been performed by Raina Kabaivanska, who almost religiously followed traditional Japanese theatrical rules and laws. When the hand of the Japanese girl accepting Christianity raises the dagger her body freezes for a moment in a Pieta-like pose. Following the classical interpretation of that image, Kabaivanska has charmed devoted admirers of celebrated Maria Callas.

Mirella Freni (Italy) has also performed the part with extreme precision, her voice always versatile and colorful in every phase. In the final scene she restores the dignity of the Japanese woman, who knows that if one cannot live honorably, one can at least die honorably. Freni works with big tragic brush strokes - the suicide of her character is the act of a very strong personality.

Miura Tamaki (Japan/Italy), Salomea Khrushelnitskaya (Ukraine/Italy), Angela Georgiu (Rumania/Italy) are part of a long line of brilliant sopranos like Dorothy Kirsten, Luyba Velich, Renata Tebaldi, Leontine Price, Anna Moffo, Maria Pellegrini, Maria Bieshu who have performed Cio Cio San's part. Transforming themselves into the character of a young woman they express the excitement and yearning, the loneliness, the hope, the despair and the strength of this person.

According to legend Cio Cio San lived in a house in Nagasaki. There is a bronze sculpture of a woman dressed in a kimono in the garden of this house. The woman is pointing at the sea to her son. Miura Tamaki was the prototype for the statue. Tamaki was buried in Japan despite the fact that she spent her life singing at «La Scala».

The scene where Cio Cio San sings her final aria «Tu Tu Piccolo Iddio» («You Little Angel») to her three-year-old son, for whose sake she has resolved to take her life, has always presented difficulties for the directors because of the child's age. Traditionally the part has always been played by a very young child, dressed in a sailor's uniform. The actress would either pick the child up and hold him close to her chest or kneel in front of him and send him away blindfolded with a toy in his hand. Let us see in this video, that only Robert Wilson from the Bolshoi Theatre had a seven-year-old boy play the part. The “mature” age of the boy was picked due to the fact that the boy had to perform a difficult supple task. He executed some ritual movements, embodying himself, god and the old Japanese tradition, which he was the product of.

Anthony Minghella entirely changed this by removing the child-actor from the opera. He turned to the Japanese Puppet Theatre, in which both realism and fantasy looked quite appropriate for the Italian opera. In his interpretation of the scene, he used the so called «Bunraku» puppets, whose precise rhythmic movements have been evolved for centuries.

When the puppet puts its hand on the shoulder of the desperate woman, in Minghella's production, it looks more real than the real child himself. It looks as if it is contributing «spontaneously» like a real partner. The puppet is half the size of a real person. It is operated by three people - the most experienced of whom operates the movements of the head and the right hand, the second one operates the left hand and the third – the legs. All three are dressed in black from top to bottom and their faces are hidden behind veils.

Photo credits © 2009 Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera

Along with the «Bunraku», the director uses the traditional Japanese attire and the «Kabuki» techniques. These three are the foundation on which he builds his work in this performance. However, Minghella is not trying to present a tragic story on a colorful Japanese background, even though he uses the light of Japanese lanterns and origami in the shape of birds flying above Butterfly's head, anticipating her end. A century after the influence of Oriental art flooded Europe, Minghella, as well as stage designer Michael Levine, and choreographer Carolyn Choa used their profound knowledge of the Oriental code to symbolically describe the subject of love as a perpetual yearning towards perfection. Cio Cio San cannot live a minute longer after realizing that it is not her destiny to have a romance with Pinkerton (Marcello Giordani).

Scenographer Michael Levine is considered to be one of the powerful artists who have been modernizing the opera theater. He is a stage designer for major opera companies in North America and Europe, including the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, La Scala, the Vienna Opera, the National Opera in London, etc…, etc... The chorus in the opera becomes the most important element for the visual aspects in his work: he creates perfect harmony between old styles and new technology.In Robert Lepage's words they are united by a «powerful common idea».
Photo credits © 2009 Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera

The nirvana is often described as an image of a mirror reflecting things as they are. This active, not static state can be described on Minghella's stage as a cinematographically simultaneous combination of an internal life and its external demonstration through the means of high technology and the traditional language of the Japanese art. There is nothing on the stage that reminds us of ornamentality, and such traditional actions like that of the pantomime with the fan illustrate the multi-layered structure of the Japanese culture. The pantomime dance of the red butterfly represents the butterfly's short life and its end. The magnificently slow sweeping motion of her hand, emphasized by the open fan, outlines the space, absorbing it and dissolving in it, getting into a dialogue with the fan (technique that goes back to ancient times).

The bright colors of the meticulously designed costumes stand out as if in a magic box against the slightly sloping black lacquered floor and the black drapery of the stage. The monastic looking clothes and their color give the actors their strongly pronounced specificity. The costumes have the characteristics of ritualistic objects. The long wing-like sleeves give not only an artistic, but also symbolic dimension of the operatic narration.

Photo credits © 2009 Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera
Anthony Minghella died on March 18th, 2008. When asked why «Madam Butterfly» was chosen as his first opera production, Minghella answered, « I was born in England but my parents originated from Italy, and my wife Caroline is from Hong Kong and Chinese is her native language. Puccini was also Italian and his opera was about the love story of a Japanese girl...»

Since Minghella's unexpected passing, the autobiographical facts that he jokingly shared, have been interpreted in a different way. He not only combined his personal family stories with the immortal story of the opera theater, but also revived the old belcanto on the modern stage. The modern theatrical and cinematographical methods of creating an opera performance by both cinema and theater directors develop the opera language making it more and more powerful and diverse.

Photo credits © 2009 Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera
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