What to do if the opera you are directing has ethical and cultural problems? Australian Director Lindy Hume’s solution is to remove all context and reduce it to a blank canvas – in this case a white box. She then tries to paint onto it a new narrative about the disempowerment of a fragile girl.
The first act is set in some retro version of a clinical future in what looks like a white hotel. Pinkerton is cajoled by Goro, a human version of Tinder, into ‘marriage’ to Cho-Cho-San. Cho-Cho-San arrives with her entourage, signs some papers, and is toasted with champagne. The Bonze arrives with his heavies and creates a scene and the entourage leave.
The wedding night is devoid of ardour or passion on either side, it has all the feel of an elaborate hotel hook-up, Pinkerton seems more interested in the wedding veil than his bride even when she has peeled off her wedding dress to reveal a blush-pink confection like a can-can dancer’s skirts (I have been advised this was representing an overlarge vagina). The act closes with Cho-Cho-San kneeling on the bed looking quite inviting in that pink ruched outfit and a knowing smile while a nervous Pinkerton finally takes off his tie. She does not look like a fragile 15-year-old-girl, and he does not look like a vile seducer exploiting her. Leonardo Caimi as Pinkerton has difficulty shining through his assigned role in Act One but seems genuinely remorseful in the end.
The rest of the opera is set in a drab flat where the bins are not collected. Cho-Cho-San and her servant Suzuki are unable to cope with daily life and appear lost and submerged in the world they now find themselves. Through it all, Cho-Cho-San clings to the delusion that one day he will return. How could she think he ever loved her after such a passionless marriage night? Everyone else can see it, not only the men but Suzuki as well.
Joyce El-Khoury and Leonardo Caimi
Sharpless, wonderfully acted and sung by Mark Stone, has the accolade of being the only believable human in this saga, who genuinely seems to care about Cho-Cho-San’s predicament. Sung by Tom Randle, the marriage broker Goro’s solution is to set her up with a replacement. Yamadori, sung here by Neil Balfour, far from the usual portrayal as a Japanese PInkerton in terms of being exploitative, comes over as a rather charming boy-next-door who Cho-Cho-San rather brusquely dismisses – so powerful is her self-delusion. By now it is clear that she is not so much a disempowered victim and she and her obsessions have a large part in the wreckage that is her life now. What follows, her jolt back to reality and end, are low-key and devoid of emotional intensity and hardly worth dwelling on.
What saves this well-meaning production is the sound. Joyce El-Khoury as Cho-Cho-San is so sure-footed in her singing underpinned by Anna Harvey as Suzuki with a honey rich voice. Carlo Rizzi’s conducting makes each note count and gives the singers the room to display their extraordinary voices to the fullest. The singers and orchestra work together perfectly, each phrase is drawn with clarity and colour. It is the sound that provides all the colour that the monochrome production lacks and the richness and texture that Puccini wrote.
Many operas have troubled plots, but it is the music that is the raison d’etre of opera and here it shines like a beacon though a muddled production – a production that is supposed to portray one thing (not particularly what Puccini had in mind) but comes over as something else completely.
WMC until September 28 and touring including Llandudno Nov 30, December 1
Main image: Mark Stone and Joyce El-Khoury
Images Richard Hubert Smith