Monday, February 18, 2008


Top: Poster image for LIONEL
Bottom: Poster for POV's Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly continues this weekend at theRoyal Theatre. Tickets are available at 385-0222. Lionel continues until February 23rd at the Phoenix. Tickets are available at 721-8000.

I believe this is the Pacific Opera's fourth production of Madama Butterfly. What makes it such a popular choice?

The composer Puccini himself considered Butterfly his favorite character and operatic creation. It debuted in 1904 and was not an immediate critical success, but has since grown to become one of the best-loved operas of all time. It's not too difficult to understand why as the story is an incredibly touching one of hopeless cross-cultural love between the young and innocent Nagasaki geisha Cio-Cio- San and the heartless American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton who weds her, beds her and abandons her, leading her to eventual suicide. Puccini was inspired, as were many of his European artistic contemporaries, by all things Japanese in the wake of Japan's opening up to the rest of the world in the mid-1800s after 200 years of relative isolation. Variations of the Butterfly story had appeared as stories and plays, and Puccini saw a play in England called Madame Butterfly that inspired him to compose the opera. But of course, it is not just the lovely and tragic story that makes this opera so well-known, but the gorgeous music that Puccini has composed, interweaving Japanese folk melodies and even the Star Spangled Banner into the more familiar Italian operatic style.

2. And how does this production do on the musical front?

Maestro Pietraroia guides the orchestra beautifully and with lots of feeling throughout. And the singing is also uniformly strong, with outstanding performances by the leads of Sally Dibblee (debuting in this role) as Butterfly, Kurt Lehmann as Pinkerton, Michele Losier as Butterfly's maid Suzuki and Bruce Kelly as the US consul Sharpless. All of these singers carry off their roles with great confidence and depth of feeling, and I particularly enjoyed Dibblee's careful physicalization, centred on Butterfly's delicate and floating hands.. I was very moved by the love duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton that closes Act One and by the famous aria of longing ('Un bel de vedremo') sung by Butterfly at the beginning of Act Two. These leads are well-backed by other supporting characters and a chorus that does not feature as much in Butterfly as in other operas, but has some haunting offstage singing in Act Two that is very effective.

3. And how about the look of this production, and its direction?

The show is designed by quite a young designer, Elli Bunton, a graduate of the National Theatre School, and I think she's done a terrific job in creating what she calls an impressionistic (as opposed to naturalistic) Japanese house. The set is all curved graceful lines and rice paper panels. Sometimes the main panels centre stage have back projections that take us out into the world beyond or offer metaphoric images that connect with the emotional journey of the characters. Her costumes are also well-done, although I wondered about the puffy skirt she puts on Dibblee that makes her seem a bit rounder than she is, when the more traditional straight-cut kimono might make the petite singer seem even more tiny and fragile as Butterfly. Director Francois Racine gives us a very clean and clear interpretation that suitably focuses on the protagonist and enhances the dramatic tensions in the storyline. All in all, an excellent production of a marvellous and moving opera.

Now we move to the latest show at the university theatre department, a world premiere of a Canadian play called Lionel the Miracle Man. What is it all about?

The play by Montreal playwright and writer Pan Bouyoucas was actually written over fourteen years ago, but this is its first production. It tells the 1920s tale of a poor young Quebecois boy Lionel who is only 4 feet 4 inches tall, but is blessed with a great singing voice. When he decides to leave his mother and small village behind, he sets out on adventures that include becoming a sideshow freak, a street busker and eventually a 'miracle man' who begins to grow (and grow and grow) in a somewhat messianic fashion, for the greater good of mankind. He becomes a film star, but his ambition leads him to evil deeds and in despair his life comes to a sad end. We cover a lot of territory in this strange play, and I have to confess I had a hard time in engaging with this central character and his journey and in making sense of what it's all supposed to mean. Quite frankly, there's usually a pretty good reason that a play hasn't been produced in more than a decade since its inception, and unfortunately those reasons seem in evidence here. Many of the characters' actions feel highly unmotivated and it remains unclear why anyone cares for this very self-involved and pompous protagonist who claims to love all mankind but can't even return the love of his loyal girlfriend and best friend. The fact is, Lionel is a rather unsympathetic character, yet not quite a villain, so we as audience members are left confused about how to receive this story: Is it a satire? An allegory? If so, what is its intent?

Does the production manage to overcome the problems with the script?

All the male actors in this show (save one) have appeared in a number of other Phoenix shows where I feel they have shone more than here. But, again, I believe this is mostly due to the material they are working with. Lead Carey Wass as Lionel is onstage almost throughout this 100 minute play and does his level best to bring energy, focus and meaning to the role. He manages very well with the physical demands of playing a dwarf and a giant (the latter on stilts!) but is generally reduced to the ranting and raving of a deluded man who compares himself to Jesus. Nicole Fraissinet acquits herself very well in the role of Lionel's girlfriend Maggie, but again, there is little change in the character which gives her not much to work with. And MFA directing student Ewan Mclaren has a lot of comings and goings that might have worked better with keeping the company onstage and moving in and out of the action to keep the pace up. He also has a white actor playing a black character in a way that may make some uncomfortable, as well as adding strange facial makeup and hair to some characters that seems neither justified or explained. The one element of the show that did work quite well was the simple but effective set design by student Jennifer Quinn which has some nice use of back projections and silhouettes. However, overall I have to report that the show leaves an audience at quite a distance and leaving the theatre shaking their heads about what they have seen. I wonder if a more highly-stylized physical approach that moves more towards cartoon and even puppetry might make the hidden meanings of the play more clear? But in this production, we just don't know what to make of it at all.

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