For over forty years now, Texan Robert Wilson has been directing operas in his instantly recognisable personal style. Whether it is an opera by Glass, Wagner, Gluck or Verdi, it will be given the same treatment: minimalist angular sets, brightly-coloured lighting skimming the stage floor and codified body movements in jerky slow motion. The formula sometimes works, sometimes less so. I remember finding these stylised aesthetics fitted Alceste’s relentless anguish in Gluck’s conventionally static opera, but I was far less charmed by a particularly frigid take on a more recent Traviata.

Elena Stikhina and Sergio Escobar © BAUS
Elena Stikhina and Sergio Escobar
© BAUS

Madama Butterfly was one of Wilson’s first go at an opera of the standard repertoire and this production premiered at the Bastille in 1993. It remains one of his most widely-acclaimed stagings, perhaps because the thick white make-up and slow, hyper-controlled choreographic motion are reminiscent of butoh and therefore, in our Western eyes at least, manage to portray Japan without falling into the kitsch of a Japonaiserie. With its abstract sets and stylised costumes, it is without a doubt an aesthetically striking production. There certainly are moments when the eerie lighting fits the poetry of the score, like during the famous “Humming Chorus”, here beautifully sung off stage by the Chorus of the Dutch National Opera. As a whole however, by wanting to avoid exoticism and melodrama at all costs, Wilson designed an icy world so disconnected from the emotional intensity of Puccini’s music that it dims rather than magnifies the listener’s experience.

Madama Butterfly, Dutch National Opera © BAUS
Madama Butterfly, Dutch National Opera
© BAUS

The main reason to revive this production in Amsterdam for a third time was presumably to showcase rising star Elena Stikhina as Cio-Cio-San, Madama Butterfly. The young Russian soprano’s performance would have deserved, and would probably have benefited from, a new production. Hers is an utterly gorgeous instrument: a full lyric soprano, admirably even throughout the registers, with vibrant colours that no amount of pressure tarnishes. Her control of dynamics is superb and her high notes have all the required power to soar above orchestral climaxes. One could not have wished for a more beautiful-sounding Butterfly, and this is already a lot. For all the beauty of her sound, there was unfortunately something missing in her characterisation. She had a graceful stage presence but the slow codified body movements imposed by the painstaking actors’ direction seemed to work as a straightjacket, restraining her ability to project a fully-rounded character of flesh and blood. I suspect a more naturalistic approach would have suited her better. Cio-Cio-San’s death by ritual suicide ought to be a devastating experience for the onlooker, but here, as she elegantly fell to the floor in jagged slow motion, it left me dry-eyed.

Elena Stikhina © BAUS
Elena Stikhina
© BAUS

As F. B. Pinkerton, the American lieutenant who marries Cio-Cio San in a mock ceremony before abandoning her to look for a “real American wife” back home, Sergio Escobar trumpeted his booming tenor with cocky aplomb. Pinkerton was never going to be a likeable character and Escobar portrayed him as a particularly detestable, egoistic and lustful villain. When this Pinkerton eventually expressed remorse, I don’t think anybody believed it to be genuine. Enkelejda Shkosa as the servant Suzuki and Brian Mulligan as the American consul Sharpless sounded better equipped to transcend the meticulous choreographic moves imposed to them and still bring nuance to their characters. The Albanian mezzo-soprano brought a moving motherly tenderness to Suzuki, while Mulligan’s resonant and warm baritone made for a persuasive and compassionate Sharpless. Tenor Saverio Fiore was a suitably obsequious Goro and Carlo Cigni was a menacing bonze uncle.

Italian conductor Jader Bignamini was making his debut at Dutch National Opera. It was also his first time conducting the Residentie Orkest and they did not quite gel at first. The orchestra’s performance was straightforwardly efficient but structures sounded somewhat pasty, with little of the sophistication this orchestra has accustomed us to. They were however back to their own selves again by the “Humming Chorus” at the end of Act 2, bringing transparency and poetry to Madama Butterfly’s last night and dawn, which is auspicious for the next performances of this run.

***11