Saturday, 15 June 2013

Christine Collins Young Artists - Madama Butterfly at Opera Holland Park

Anne Sophie Duprels as Madama Butterfly, Opera Holland Park 2013, picture Fritz Curzon
Anne Sophie Duprels
(pciture Fritz Curzon)
The Christine Collins Young Artists scheme at Opera Holland Park was introduced last year, and this year 14 young singers performed Puccini's Madama Butterfly on Friday 14 June 2013, in the production by Paul Higgins (which debuted on June 8) joined by Anne Sophie Duprels in the title role from the main cast. The performance was conducted by associate conductor Natalie Murray conducted. A feature of Opera Holland Park's young artists scheme is that the young singers are rehearsed for the full rehearsal period in parallel to the main performers, this year they were directed by associate director Emma Rivlin. The cast included Luis Gomes as Pinkerton, Maria Fiselier as Suzuki, Ben McAteer as Sharpless, Peter Davoren as Goro and Katie Slater as Kate Pinkerton.

Paul Higgins and designer Neil Irish have created a very traditional Butterfly. Irish's fixed set, with its paper thin walls, was placed high on a platform masking the facade of Holland House and reducing the main acting area whilst providing walkways for subsidiary action. One distinctive feature of the production was the use of movement. French-Japanese movement director Namiko Gahier-Ogawa has created stylised oriental-style movement for the Japanese characters and this became the basic expressive vocabulary for Anne Sophie Duprels.

Visually the production was very spare, with virtually no props, achieving much with very little. For act two, there was a single wooden chair (western style, not Japanese) and an American flag. In common with a number of other recent productions, Butterfly was in Western dress for this act, reflecting the character's close identification with Pinkerton and his religion and culture. At the end, though we heard Pinkerton off-stage we never saw him, the opera closed  with Butterfly's body and the blindfolded Sorrow. Credit must also go to Richard Howell's evocative lighting.

Act one opened with Pinkerton accompanied by a pair of his ship-mates and Luis Gomes as Pinkerton made it clear that he was more interested in chatting to his comrades and drinking whisky than in what Peter Davoren's Goro had to say. Gomes has a confident stage manner and gave an easy picture of Pinkerton as thoughtless charmer. By contrast, his interaction with Butterfly was a little stiff, presumably by design. You felt that Duprels' Butterfly was as much in charge as Pinkerton, and when it came to the love duet there was the distinct feeling of Gomes drawing back as if Pinkerton was inhibited by what he had taken on.

Duprels off stage entry was rather too present (sounding almost amplified though I am assured it wasn't), but she gave a magical, entrancing performance. A very slight figure whose physique is entirely apt for the young Japanese girl, this was allied to a voice whose dramatic capabilities have been revealed in Duprels recent repertoire. But her voice was in superb shape, caressing the lyrical line, beautifully focussed and flexible, capable of fining right down. This was a performance which combined in ideal terms the lyric with the dramatic in a way which not every singer can achieve. (Butterfly is 16, but the singer also needs the power for the big moments such as Butterfly's final aria).

Visually Duprels seemed to have taken to heart Gahier-Ogawa's repertoire of movement, and created a character who was nervously on the move all the time. The result could have seemed stiff, but was magical. As I have said, she seems to have had a streak of steel underneath which adjusted the balance of the relationship. The duet which closes act one was thrilling, in the way the drama between the two singers developed, passion only causing Gomes's Pinkerton to relax at the very end.

I have heard Luis Gomes a number of times both at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and with British Youth Opera. He has always impressed, but this performance was the first time I had heard him in core Italian repertoire (previous operas had been by Britten, Ned Rorem and Smetana). He has a lovely, well produced Italianate voice which he combines expressively with a confident stage manner. His vocal production was gloriously easy throughout the whole range, which is quite something for a young tenor in this style of opera.

In act two, his account of Addio, fiorito asil was finely sung, though his voice does not yet quite rise easily over the orchestra. There was a feeling that his voice still has room to grow, and sensibly he did not try to pressure it, this was a finely managed performance as well as vivid one. His interaction with Duprels, OHP's reigning diva for over 10 years, fairly crackled and this did not seem like a one off performance. I do look forward to Gomes future performances with great interest.

The version used was Puccini's latest one, in just two acts. For the first part of act two, it is Butterfly's relationship with Suzuki which comes to the fore. Maria Fiselier has a lovely rich mezzo-soprano voice, evenly produced and her Suzuki was a miracle of discreet poise, always in the background but providing fine support for Duprels. The two women developed a highly believable relationship and I sense that we will encounter Fiselier in some far more showy roles as her voice develops. She is certainly a singer I want to her again. But of course, as act two develops, it is on Butterfly that our attention stays, though Fiselier provided discreet support throughout.

Duprels account of Un bel di vedremo was finely moving and her final aria was heart rending and the ending shattering. Duprels was miraculously convincing as a the young bride, and your eyes never left her when she was on stage.

The consul Sharpless can sometimes come over as a bit of a dry stick, though Stephen Gadd at Grange Park last year showed that the role can be vividly song (see my review). McAteer was a stiff yet sympathetic Sharpless, his performance emphasised the character's youth and inhibition, combined with a finely sung baritone line. Sharpless isn't a showy role, but McAteer impressed with the way he brought sympathy and musicality to the role, making me interested to learn what the singer can do in other roles.

Peter Davoren was a delightful Goro, rather less nasty than in some performances and certainly far less caricatured. Moon faced, with a charming manner, Davoren also brought a nice slyness to the role and certainly gave hints that he is a fine comic actor.

The smaller roles were all finely taken. Katie Slater was dignified as Kate Pinkerton, Marcin Gesla was an impressive Bonze and Dominic Kraemer a notable Yamadori, with Ian Beadle as the Imperial Commissioner, Alistair Sutherland as the Official Registrar, Ruth Trawford as Butterfly's mother, Joanne Roughton-Arnold as the Aunt, Rebecca Hardwick as the Cousin and Danny Standing as Yakuside.

Natalie Murray conducted with great sympathy for the performers, and drew a nicely judged account of the work from the City of London Sinfonia. There were moments when I thought that her performance was a bit stiff, and that we need it to be a bit more relaxed with an easier flow between phrases. Murray had a nice grasp of the large scale paragraphs, but performing Puccini is as much about the ebb and flow of the small rubatos, and Murray did not yet achieve this. That said, she provided a fine accompaniment to the young singers.

This was a hugely enjoyable performance. Director Paul Higgins and associate director Emma Rivlin is to be congratulated as it was notable for the vivid interaction between the characters and the sympathy which all brought to their characters to create a profoundly moving performance. Anne Sophie Duprels is always a fine dramatic performer, but here interacting with the Christine Collins Young Artists we got something special.

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