Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Chat about the SLO 2013 'Madama Butterfly'

Ah how time flies… it seemed like only yesterday (actually 2004) when I was an innocent young man sobbing away at Nancy Yuen’s portrayal of Butterfly, then only my second experience with the opera (the first was on videotape). Now that I am older and wiser (or just more cynical), the tears just don’t come as fast, but I’m glad to report that this production is an absolute success, with unreserved praise for both leads and the entire cast and crew. So I went online and had a discussion with Hawk, here’s what went down.

(SPOILER ALERT: If you are not familiar with the opera and watching the SLO production is your first experience with it, its best that you skip this review until you’ve seen the show. You can still preview by looking at production pictures on our Facebook Group).

Steven: To be honest, I had some reservations about whether the Butterfly (Mako Nishimoto) was up to the task, given that she's trained exclusively in Asia and that she was cast because of her Japanese background. But as a singer she has proven herself to be the real deal. Powerful, muscular voice, rich from top to bottom, well controlled, and a fantastic, in-depth portrayal.

Hawk: She did a great job. Love the acting too! I think the stage directions were generally well thought out with actions and reactions meaningful to watch.

Steven: isn't it? Her performance showed genuine emotion but did not at any time compromise the voice.

Hawk: yes, love watching her, I believed her when she was about to kill herself before Suzuki pushed the child onstage. One thing that I cannot understand is why Pinkerton taking his son away at the end of the opera was portrayed like that. That’s the only bit I didn't like.

Steven: Yeah, the ending mystified me a little. The set was attractive and simple, allowing all the actors to do their jobs without being intrusive. It was stark yet colourful at the same time.

Hawk: Yes, I like the sets definitely.

Steven: How about the tenor? Israel Lozano did a great job too, but that was not a surprise given his credentials.

Hawk: yes the tenor is definitely more than adequate for the role though I could hear a little more effort for the last bit of his last aria. I love the voice of Sharpless (John Antoniou), though it's oddly uni-directional; that is, if he is not facing in your direction you hear him a little less.

Steven: For some reason he reminds me of Patrick Stewart, visually and aurally. If Captain Kirk can sing that is what he would sound like. I noticed that the staging is very clever in that it allows the singers to be front and centre at important moments, so musical balance is mostly fine.

Hawk: Oh good thing you mentioned that! I am so glad the direction got the singers to sing downstage most of the time!!! Anna Koor as Suzuki, as usual, solid tone throughout.

Steven: Anna Koor is fantastic as usual. Volume a little smaller than the two leads, but beautiful tone despite some problems with low notes

Hawk: and the orchestra is wonderfully controlled so as to not overpower the singers, yet without losing its dramatic elements. Actually, I think Anna Koor was on par with the leads. Also, Goro (Lemuel dela Cruz) definitely deserved the warm applause at curtain call.

Steven: His voice has grown a lot bigger than I remember him for. Brighter in colour.

Hawk: I heard his beautiful voice loud and clear throughout, and I really believed him as the Goro. I must say some of the leads must have mastered the art of falling dramatically.

Steven: Haha... and Martin wins the award for ugliest wig, both times. Also, it’s funny but I thought the boy was a little too over-aged to play a two-and-half year old. But then try getting a toddler to act as much as he did!

Hawk: also, why is the house boy sweeping the floor without touching the floor with the broom? But otherwise, singing is all round wonderful from everybody - including all the comprimario roles. Hahaha… I like the crowd scene at the wedding and after.

Steven: And really that's all that's needed to be said isn't it? That everyone did wonderfully… It was very well directed really. The ending of the love duet was romantic and felt completely natural. And really, the best thing that can be said about the direction is that it felt effortless and natural, as if there were no direction at all.

Hawk: I love the dramatic pointing of the chorus at Butterfly while she pointed back in reaction before falling back on the ground to cry. Such high drama!

Steven: Yeah, that got my attention too! There were so many moments when I was deciding whether to read the surtitles or just see what was going on onstage.

Hawk: oh I must must must say this..... the humming chorus is the best of any i have ever heard, and I am NOT exaggerating! The balance is exquisite, the chorus was so clean in delivery.

Steven: yes, and it set the tone so well. The moon backdrop was so lovely and matches the music so well. It seems that the SLO has also hit a commercial success, seeing that the house was full.

Hawk: the orchestra so delicate… alright, let’s talk about the bad news? I did wish there was more light on stage in general. One of the scenes had more light than usual and then I realised I had been missing a lot of visuals because the lights were so low in general.

Steven: I believe that they were going for different times of the day, from the red light of dusk, to grey evenings, then the moon followed by sunrise.

Casting for looks was also an important consideration I believe, as every Caucasian character was played by one, and of course young Butterfly was played by a young Japanese singer.

Hawk: Pinkerton was handsome. hmmmm… Sharpless was nice to look at too! The geishas were lovely in their costumes!

Steven: hehe… I loved Butterfly's entrance, how the girls walked in one-by-one, giving us a fashion show while introducing Butterfly at the same time.

Hawk: Oh I forgot to compliment Butterfly for being such a great flower thrower in 'tutti i fior'. Really! I noticed how the flowers trickled so beautifully from her right hand ! (she was less good with the left hand). Suzuki was just throwing flowers.... Love the 'tutti i fior' scene - such a great sight to see how much flowers was played.

Steven: yes, there was something very striking in the way the bright pink flower petals contrasted with the dark lighting, as it they had lights of their own, and there was something quite mesmerising in the way they drifted down.

How do you feel about this 3rd Butterfly for the SLO? I loved Ivan Heng’s production for its interesting pop-art-ish visuals.

Hawk: I love this Butterfly the best cos I am so much less conscious of the direction (especially in Ivan Heng's). I was in the first Butterfly in the chorus so I have no idea how that went for the audience....

For the Ivan Heng's, I was conscious of his imprint in the interpretation whereas in the current one, I felt the interpretation more natural. I did think it strange to have Pinkerton kissing Kate behind the door opening while Butterfly was singing and this was one place where I felt it wasn't natural and the director's own imprint was too obvious.

Steven: Yes, I suppose it’s meant to be metaphorical but it just seems like a spoiler for what's to come.

Hawk: the effect was very beautiful but in my opinion not necessary at all.

Steven: Those watching for the first time might disagree though. It’s funny how Israel Lozano was loudly booed for such a fantastic performance.

Hawk: that took me by surprise too! But then I realised that he did such a good job in portraying Pinkerton to be a bad guy it's an interesting take on the character and refreshing. Quite humourous too.

Steven: it’s really not easy playing such an a$$hole I suppose, but he seemed to take the booing really well. I think it could have something to do with Pinkerton taking the child away instead of hugging Butterfly one last time. It made the character seem even more callous.

Hawk: I don't think so, he's just a bad guy.

Steven: Well the newbies wouldn't have known otherwise. I don't think there's much redemption for this character, at most you can say that he was a foolish young man.

Well let’s describe the voices of the 4 leads in greater detail, as if in a vocal exam.

Hawk: including Suzuki? Her voice turns out the best in the theatre, followed by Sharpless.

Steven: Mako Nishimoto: strong, well-supported and evenly produced from top to bottom. Flubbed one or two high notes but otherwise had a first-class instrument, and served her acting well. Your thoughts?

Hawk: hmmm... Judging from what I heard just on the Butterfly's entrance....
her tone wasn't round on the high notes when she has arrived on centrestage. It sounded like radio interference has come in a bit. I am sure it's not her voice is not good. I think it's the acoustics. I heard beats in her voice.

Steven: haha... or it could just some initial nerves?

Hawk: Yeah, maybe it's the acoustics. It’s not an easy entrance aria.

Steven: but what's your opinion of the voice in all its glory?

Hawk: it's rich. She pulled the right punches. Low range very clear for a soprano. But just a personal thing, she took ‘che tua madre’ really fast. I prefer a much slower version as the music needed time to play out the dramatic elements written into the orchestration. they were lost when taken too fast.

Steven: yeah, but I think she had her own justifications for doing so, to portray her hysterics. How about the tenor, Israel Lozano?

Hawk: lovely voice.

Steven: For me, rich and clear voice, Mediterranean/Italianate sounding, powerful.

Hawk: Love his voice! Delicious, round and delicious. I want to taste it again and again! Suzuki's voice is also round and delicious.

Steven: haha… and Sharpless?

Hawk: The strange thing is that his voice loses volume when he's not singing in that direction.

Steven: it’s a great sound, it has a fatherly gravitas to it. I also lo

I think the final word is that while the SLO may be playing safe this time, they showed that they know what they are doing, and do it really well. This was a complete, accomplished musical and theatrical outing, simple but well put together, with an unknown but highly competent cast delivering the goods. It has obviously responded well with the Singapore public, as the full-house rewarded cast and crew with really enthusiastic applause. This is one of their best nights yet. Here’s hoping that August’s La Traviata and Feb 2014’s Cosi fan Tutte will do just as well!


The Singapore Lyric Opera's production of Madama Butterfly runs till 5 February 2013 (no show on 3rd). Check out our Events Page for ticketing details.

Our exclusive interview with 'Butterfly' Mako Nishimoto:

Our exclusive interview with 'Pinkerton' Israel Lozano:

Production pictures available on our Facebook Group (do sign-up if you want to receive future updates from us!):

1 comment:

  1. I watched this production of Madama Butterfly on the 4th of Feb.

    Mako Nishimoto definitely has the pipes. Her vocal musculature strong and her voice is mature and has a timbre suitable for Cio-cio san. She also has very good Italian pronunciation. However, her performance of "Un bel di, vedremo" sounds too spoken for my taste...a very germanic delivery, lacks the sweetness, yearning, hopeful feeling. "Un bel di, vedremo" is one of Puccini's greatest arias, it is the aria I look forward to everytime I see Madama Butterfly but unfortunately her performance of that aria did not make it for me.

    Isreal Lozano has a beautiful tone in his voice but unfortunately I felt that he was very reserved in his singing. It almost seems like he was not interested in being emotive for his portrayal of Pinkerton. I wasn't taking particular notes in his performance but I feel only satisfied with his performance, not in awe or glad to have heard him sang.


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