From the Artistic Desk of Jonathan Pell – Venice

by tdoadmin


The chandelier in the auditorium of the Teatro la fenice.

I have come to Venice for a few days and attended performances of MADAME BUTTERFLY with different casts on successive nights.

This new production was abstract and highly stylized, with a white cyclorama that also covered the stage floor, sort of like an old fashion photographer’s backdrop. In Act I there were three large white stones on the ground (to suggest a zen garden perhaps) and suspended in the air was a large ceramic looking sculpture that looked like a treble clef, or maybe a figure eight.

In the first scene of Act II the stones were removed and the suspended sculpture (or more accurately a larger version of it) was now on the ground.

After the humming chorus a white curtain came down and during the orchestral interlude video was projected on it of stars and planets swirling through the cosmos.  When the curtain went back up, the stage was completely bare.

The costumes were mostly white, as well.  The principal women were in white floor length caftans and the men in white suits, with nothing about the clothes to suggest that we were in Japan.  In fact, none of the Asian characters were depicted as such, and at the second performance I attended, both the “Suzuki” and “Butterfly” (using their own hair) were blonde.  The “Goro” was also light haired and in a white caftan, but was wearing oversized white sunglasses, and so looked a little like Elton John.

At the very end of the opera when the heroine commits suicide, there were animated projections of pastel colored butterflies that fluttered across the backdrop.

The production was an attempt to do something modern to tie in with the contemporary art exhibited at this year’s Biennale, but much of it didn’t work for me.

The singing in both casts was uneven, and there was very little in the way of characterization from most of the performers.

The best singer for me was the “Suzuki” on the second night, Manuela Custer.  I wasn’t surprised, though, since Manuela made her Dallas Opera debut in the spring of 2009 as “Isabella” in L’ITALIANA IN ALGERI.  It was luxury casting to have her in this production, and she was one of the most touching “Suzuki’s” I can remember.

Speaking of the Biennale, the modern art exhibition that happens every other year in Venice, this year’s show features pavilions of cutting edge contemporary art from eighty-eight different countries.

Some of the artists on display really try to stretch the boundaries of what we think of as “art” and I must confess that a lot of it mystifies me.  I particularly have trouble with some of the video art installations which I neither understand nor appreciate.  They often remind me of the Andy Warhol movies from the sixties where the camera is trained on a sleeping man and the spectator watches some stranger snore for hours on end.

Some of what I saw on display yesterday was really beautiful, though, and I particularly liked the sculpture/collages of Sarah Sze representing the United States.

The Korean Pavilion was a bit strange this year.  After standing in a line to get in, and signing an indemnity waiver, I was ushered into a room without any light and allowed to stand there in total darkness (and I mean absolutely pitch black) for a couple of minutes, before the door opened and I was able to leave.

I suppose it makes a statement, but I’m still not sure what it was supposed to mean.


 The chorus takes a bow at the end of Act I of MADAME BUTTERFLY at Teatro la fenice.


The set for the last scene of MADAMA BUTTERFLY at the Teatro la fenice.


Interior of the rebuilt Teatro la fenice.

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