Can Madama Butterfly survive a production without the cherry blossoms, silk kimonos and bamboo houses with paper screens? If Puccini's masterpiece is strong enough to stand on its own terms without the kitsch elements, there are nonetheless certain expectations for a stage production that perhaps shouldn't be meddled with too much. Vincent Boussard finds a way to retain the essence of this imagery in a relatively minimalist fashion in this Hamburg production without losing anything of the exotic spectacle. There are however one or two interpretative twists here that not everyone will agree work well or even consider necessary.
The costumes, by Christian Lacroix, look stylised traditional with obis and big hats, although reflecting Cio-Cio-San's adoption of American ways she wears jeans and a sweatshirt for Act II. In terms of the set design itself however, this Madama Butterfly looks every bit as minimalistically oriental and yet subtly elegant as it ought to do. The set for the entire three acts is based around a spiral staircase at the centre of the stage, with only large panels behind. These however slide back to open up to the seasons and the passage of the day outside, as well as being used for off-stage locations for Madama Butterfly and Suzuki to retire to at significant points. It's very much an 'interior' design then and functional for the purposes of the work, but a subtle play of light and colour suggests other moods and situations.
If it's all about establishing the essential mood for each scene, you could say that Boussard's production is a little over-elaborate in its use of colour, but there's no doubt that the set and lighting follows and relates closely to the score. There are rapid switches between one extreme emotion and another in Madama Butterfly, between romantic illusion and harsh reality and Puccini holds an amazing suspended tension between them. Boussard's production, mood and lighting, follows these developments very closely but it leads the director to make a few decisions that don't perhaps hold up well. One can understand how Cio-Cio-San can make a little shrine of artefacts to her delusions, but whether those should be seen as extending to their child is another matter. It's clear from the libretto that the child is real, but Boussard muddies the issue by using a large doll instead of a real child. He also takes the final scene off-stage, which is a brave decision, but there's no denying that it robs the conclusion of some of its intended emotional impact.
If the intention is to let the strength of the music and the singing speak for itself, at least the Hamburg production has some fine singers who are capable of giving the work a full and nuanced expression. It's absolutely essential that you believe in these characters that are so well written by Puccini (in spite of some stereotypes). If sung well they really come to life and they certainly work here. Freed from the usual mannerisms, Alexia Voulgaridou is able to emotionally delve into the work anew and sings wonderfully and with tremendous force. It's a riveting performance. Teodor Ilincal is a lyrical tenor in the classic mould, his B.F. Pinkerton naive and romantic rather than exploitative and insensitive. Christina Damian's Suzuki is also very fine and adds considerably to the overall quality of this production. As too does the excellent account of the work by the Hamburg Philharmonic conducted by Alexander Joel.
On Blu-ray, the video transfer is very good. It looks a little softer than most, mainly on account of the colour saturation, but the colour reproduction and the beauty of the set is impressive. There's only one audio track on this release, a PCM stereo track, but it's strong and gives a good account of the singing and the orchestration. Other than trailers, there are no extra features on the BD, but the booklet comes with an interview with Vincent Boussard that discusses his approach to the work. Region-free, subtitles on the release are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.