madama butterfly

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madama butterfly

A friend of mine loves the opera. He bought some sort of season pass (I’m sure they don’t call it something that pedestrian) to the LA Opera. On Wednesday he couldn’t make it – so he gave me his tickets. I’d never been to the Opera before, and never been to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

I took the red line from North Hollywood and ended up at the hall 90 minutes early. Before each performance there is a pre-show talk on the second floor that lasts for about an hour. The pre-show was basically conductor James Conlon talking to himself about Puccini for an hour. After the first twenty minutes I found myself reading the show magazine.

The October performances are of (click for a video of the LA Opera show)Madama Butterfly.

The performance was very stark. As you can see from the video, the costumes were minimalistic imaginings of kimonos. The sets were, well, there were only two sets, and they both looked very similar. The first was a hillside with a stone path coming down to a wooden floor (the house interior) on the left and a wooden bridge or platform running the length of the stage at the front. For Act II the hill went all the way to the front of the stage, the platform ran diagonally in the upper left towards the back of the stage and the wooden floor was in the middle. All this was set to a giant screen which changed color depending on the mood of the scene/song. Cio-Cio San had one change of clothes (with an optional wedding shawl), the rest of the characters none. There were several extraneous characters (servants?) that were done up to look like something out of HellRaiser.

To my knowledge this was nothing out of the ordinary, but after looking up photos of other performances I can see that other theater companies chose to make a much more realistic traditional performance, houses that have walls, Pinkerton wearing a military outfit – not a long white priestly robe/coat, and so on. The Phillip Glass visuals were a bit of a letdown considering the expense account the LA Opera must have to throw around. Cindy told me about a production of Little Shop of Horrors she saw there with a gigantic plant that actually went out into the audience. Perhaps they spent the entire budget on Lipang Zhang, who is considered “born to play” the role of Cio Cio San.

So there I was, in downtown Los Angeles, watching a an Opera written by an Italian, performed in Italian by a Chinese born – Canadian citizen portraying a Japanese Geisha – all being conducted by a man born in Queens.

All of the performances were superb, although I could never quite figure out who Goro was supposed to be (the main servant of the Geisha house?). The production was spotless and didn’t “drag on” as much as the reviews I read made me believe it might. Our seats were fantastic. Cindy, who apparently has seen many performances at the DCP, raved “these seats are amazing, best seats I’ve ever had here!” The seats were about ten rows back and to the left of the stage. My only complaint is that if you actually have good seats – the subtitles (or maybe we should call them supertitles) are hard to keep up with because they are high above the stage. So, we constantly had to look way up and then back down, and then way up and back down and so on for three hours.

Somehow I think the translator dumbed down the lyrics, or maybe everything just sounds more beautiful when sung in Italian. I know for sure everything takes much longer to say when sung in Italian! Cio-Cio would sing for two minutes and the subtitles would flash “Tell him to come back in half an hour.”

There were only six physical props (other than the stage) in the entire piece; Pinkerton’s (I didn’t know until yesterday that Weezer’s second album was loosely based on this Opera – now it makes a little more sense) letter, a chair, a rock, a box/table, a miniature chair/toy, and Bonze’s sword. Everything else was just imaginary. Cio Cio picked up imaginary flowers and so on. Not even Butterfly’s father’s knife deserved a real prop, which made the death scene more imaginative. Butterfly floated to the ground and sort of fluttered like her namesake for a minute or two.

There was a lot of old old (white) money in the audience last night. A lot of obvious plastic surgery victims and millionaires from a different era. Most everyone was at least in “business attire,” but there was one young couple that refused to conform and wore what I can only describe as Dave Navarro-esque (complete with the feathered hat). I chuckled thinking of how the old rich people riddled with plastic surgery scars probably scoffed at the young “rebels” with piercings and tattoos. They have more in common with each other than I have with either party.

I took the red line home and was in bed by midnight.

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