Tuesday, June 14, 2020

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers

Even before curtain-up, the seventh revival of this production of Puccini’s “Japanese tragedy” has generated some media attention. In consultation with various Japanese academics and practitioners, and movement director Sonoko Kamimura, Daniel Dooner’s direction of this revision seeks to root out any chauvinist, orientalist or racist elements in order to create a more culturally sensitive and authentic Japanese ethos.

It is probably a moot point as to whether any (Western) eyes would otherwise have noticed the subtle alterations in gestures, character, make-up, and dress, between this undoubtedly sharper, lither version, and what previously and lazily passed for a representation of turn-of-the-century Japan in its encounter with the imperial West in most stagings. Perhaps less moot is that, however inaccurate and generally unintentionally offensive such misrepresentations, it is the assumptions and rapaciousness of that Western colonialism which is the real target for condemnation in the work (and in some sense, maybe the dramatic point is that those assumptions become the distorting lens through which the Japanese world is seen by ironic default).

Furthermore, it should be noted that this revision does not reclaim the piece – or at least the relevant roles – exclusively for ethnically fitting artists, in the way that, for example, Porgy and Bess has been, seemingly irrevocably. Not one singer here hails from Japan or anywhere near East Asia (though Eri Nakamura will take on the role of Cio-Cio-San in some renditions for this run). The programme does acknowledge the recent call by the campaign group “British East and South-East Asians in Theatre and on Screen” for the wider inclusion of Artists of Colour on the stage, but for now the question about cultural appropriation by white actors and performers will remain. Nevertheless, this is clearly a welcome and progressive step in the debate about how works set in very different places and times from our own are approached. This is a tentative step in that process, if not a radical revamp of this production or the opera.

Aside from minor choreographical gestures, the resulting substantial difference (in a positive, illuminating direction, not Edward Said’s negative concept of cultural ‘difference’ as a reductive, condescending contrast between East and West) is that the Japanese roles are presented with perhaps a greater degree and variety of identifiably human characterisation than is sometimes the case. Most of all, Lianna Haroutounian [pictured] embodies a notably dignified and confident Cio-Cio-San from the beginning, rather than a meekly naïve fifteen-year-old girl who grows into maturity and motherhood. Instead of the completely mawkish depiction of a desperately vulnerable girl that often obtains (as a worldly, knowing geisha, that was always untenable), here she has a mind and will of her own – apparently more in control of her destiny, and consequently her love for Pinkerton seems deeper and less impressionable. That also brings out a more properly tragic vein (in literary Greek, rather than sentimental form) to her character in that her downfall is then partly attributable to the flaw in her nature that she is so unwilling to believe in Pinkerton’s infidelity. For all that, Haroutounian’s performance is still tremendously poignant and unsettling in her consistent vocal strength and warmth, even as she faces suicide as the only solution to her dishonour. Visibly moved, she received a standing ovation at the end.

Patricia Bardon (replacing Kseniia Nikolaieva for this performance) as the ever-dutiful Suzuki is no less arresting in the compassionate depth of her interpretation. Where Alexander Kravets is a comically wily Goro, sounding deliberately mean-spirited (if perhaps to the point of caricature), Alan Pingarròn made for a touchingly uncertain, stilted Prince Yamadori in his awkward attempt to woo Cio-Cio-San at the point which would unwittingly provide her with a way out of her shame. Jeremy White sounds a suitably chilly Bonze as he curses his niece for abandoning her people and customs.

This revival has excited some attention also on account of Freddie De Tommaso’s appearance as Pinkerton. He brings correct Italianate colour and ardour to the part – particularly in the duet which brings a rapturous close to Act One, where we might believe that his character achieves a sincere devotion and passion for Cio-Cio-San. But there is perhaps a sense of artificiality in his singing, as though playing up to the celebrity he has recently – and justly – attained for his vocal skills, even if that aptly expresses Pinkerton’s arrogance. Doubtless in time he will accommodate his fine voice more seamlessly with the demands of stagecraft. Lucas Meachem is a sympathetic, patient Sharpless, exuding wisdom and experience in his soft-grained portrayal.

Dan Ettinger tends to conduct an efficient account of the score, if not fully probing it. It opens urgently and stridently, already portending tension and upheaval, but tenderness and passion do creep in. However, that is not always sustained, as the music sometimes meanders, such as in the Act One duet (which doesn’t really reach a searing climax) and in ‘Un bel dì, vedremo’. The ‘Blossom’ duet also lacks finesse and charm. But there are some striking sombre colours from the woodwind, which particularly evoke the dark, sinister passages of Wagner’s Ring or Tristan at times.

The small but telling efforts to decolonise this opera are, in general, welcome – and thank goodness that Puccini’s masterpiece hasn’t suffered the fate of cancel culture in toto. But it is largely the charisma of the cast which breathes invigorating new life into this revival of a, frankly, tired traditional production which offers few insights (Glyndebourne’s fairly recent take is more-slick in that respect). How much more radical and edifying it would be if, instead of tinkering at the edges (albeit with impeccably good intentions), ROH and other houses would now wrest the work (and Puccini’s output at large) from the deadening, Pinkerton-like grasp of conservative-minded ‘opera lovers’, implacably opposed to ‘modern dress’ productions, and let directors do justice to its multi-faceted dimensions with a thorough dramaturgical overhaul and the elucidating techniques of Regietheater – as for instance Welsh National Opera imaginatively achieved last year.

Performances to July 6

https://www.roh.org.uk/

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