Year of the Butterfly: More Robert Wilson in L. A.

One of the objectives of this website is to honor masterpieces of the standard operatic repertory. To further this objective, I will devote special attention to operas during the year of the 50th anniversary of my first performance of each opera. I attended four operas in 1956 presented by the San Francisco Opera on its then customary annual tour of Southern California. One of these was “Madama Butterfly” (November 1, 1956) in San Diego with Dorothy Kirsten (Butterfly), Margaret Roggero (Suzuki), Giuseppe Campora (Pinkerton) and Louis Quilico (Sharpless).

Since the remaining operas on my 1956 list included performances by Renata Tebaldi, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, Richard Lewis, Ludwig Suthaus, Leonard Warren, Hans Hotter and Boris Christoff, this will give some indication of just what a “singer”s opera house” San Francisco was in those days.

I had not expected that my first web-page on “Butterfly” would derive from discussions on these pages of “Parsifal”, but we will go in whatever directions seem warranted at a particular time. Regular readers may recall that Stephen and Tom had quite different ideas of Robert Wilson’s production of “Parsifal” in Los Angeles in late Fall 2005. Stephen, who strongly supports Wilson’s approach, made a parenthetical statement about Robert Wilson’s 2004 Los Angeles production of “Butterfly”: “Frankly, these days, I had rather see Wilson’s spare and often lucid interpretation [of “Parsifal”] than anything else. . . [T]he two grail scenes were transforming for me. (The same goes for his wonderful BUTTERFLY, which I thought nearly perfect).”

As with “Parsifal” what for Stephen was “nearly perfect” was deeply flawed for Tom. Here are Tom’s comments on the 2006 L. A. Opera revival (which Nagano did not conduct).

Tom Reports on the Wilson “Butterfly”

“We (most lamentably in retrospect) returned to L. A. Opera’s current Madama Butterfly production conceived by Robert Wilson – a reprise of his earlier version of some years ago – on January 24 2006. Having seen it then, we were prepared for an unpleasant evening of disappointment – especially after seeing Wilson’s monumentally bleak, emasculated, vacuous and emotion-devoid Parsifal two weeks before.

“But one might be forgiven for imagining that, somehow, time erases nearly all bad memories. But not so here. This production – which L A Opera advertised as a triumphal return of the earlier production to “rave reviews” (more about these “raves” below) seemed far more absurd, meaningless and empty than before – but perhaps the passage of time numbs one’s senses.

“But I think not here. Once again this Madama Butterfly was presented in the format of a Japanese Noh Drama, which, at first thought, might seem brilliant given the story of Lt Pinkerton’s dalliance in Japan with Cio Cio San. The lights came on a totally empty stage with virtually no sets whatever, populated by Noh Drama figures in morbidly austere full-length-to-the-floor frocks. Utterly expressionless, they gyrated around the stage like Frankenstein Zombies minimally animated with the most ridiculous-conceivable semaphore-signal gestures. The “background” people seemingly glide across the stage with tiny unnoticeable steps to preposterously absurd gestures – laughter erupted from the audience at points such as this – but certainly not because it was funny.

“Never, ever, not once, is there any color. The stage is a supremely bleak palette of black, grey and some white caftans (for relief?). The dreadfully sonnambulent conducting most adequately reflected this extraordinarily boring stage-scape. The glorious color, iridescent elegance, subtle design, and inherent beauty of Japan – and its civilization – which enchanted Puccini so much, is nowhere to be seen.

“Given the utter lack of anything to enjoy on stage even remotely suggesting the magic of this wondrous opera, the inescapable and overwhelming impression is that of unsurpassed boredom which just kept going – when would this monstrosity ever end? Crowds of the audience understandably fled during the one intermission. I should have joined them as I did after Act II of Parsifal as hundreds voted with their feet, but I hoped it might improve, but to no avail.

“This concept of Madama Butterfly is evidently that of seeing it as an emotionless, austere, pseudo-drama. It totally eviscerates every moment, scene, interplay, insight or revelation of delight so inherent in this glorious work and so often enchanting audiences seeing Butterfly around the world.

“So on to better things! We all can learn – including Robert Wilson and myself as well, which brings me to the most meaningful (and brutally frank) observation overheard from some disappointed season-ticket holders nearby: Wasn’t Sharpless the Producer? Was this the “rave review” L A Opera trumpeted? Tom”