Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Madam Butterfly @ Theatre Royal, Plymouth

This was the penultimate performance of the last of three different productions of Madama Butterfly that have done the rounds so far this season, and the final port of call of WNO’s three month Spring tour. Two of the key players had been replaced for the last two performances, as had the conductor. As a result, there was a feeling of end of the run tiredness, yet the main protagonists were hardly settled in to their roles.

Particularly by the second part of the second act, when the audience seemed to realise it had already heard the best bits, time was beginning to drag, and we were going through the motions, and wanting to get it over with and go home.

This was the latest revival, by Caroline Chaney, of Joachim Herz‘s East Berlin production which was first staged by Welsh National Opera thirty years ago. Visually attractive, the refurbished set remains the same throughout, a traditional Japanese wooden framed house-on-the-hill above Nagasaki, surrounded by a bower of cherry blossom. There is a sepia, photographic, tone to the set and costume designs by Reinhart Zimmermann and Eleonore Kleiber.

Apparent fragility and delicacy belie a hidden strength, reflected in the character of Butterfly in distinct contrast to the coarse superficiality and arrogance of Pinkerton that mask the ultimate cowardice within the man.

The first performance of the opera, at La Scala, in 1904 was badly received, much to the shock of Puccini and his publisher Ricordi. Substantial changes were made, before a revised version reopened in Brescia three months later, and this time to acclaim, but Puccini continued to make minor changes to almost every production with which he was involved thereafter.

Hertz uses an amalgamation of Puccini’s earlier editions of Butterfly – rather than his later revisions – and additional sections have in turn been edited by WNO’s former Head of Music, Julian Smith. Herz brings out the tragedy of a grubby financial transaction entered into by Pinkerton. Gwyn Hughes Jones, who took the part in Minghella’s 2005 ENO production, demonstrates Pinkerton’s arrogance and appalling cultural insensitivity of the American abroad seeking his own casual 100-yen pleasure while deluding himself that his desire is romantic love.

Neither Hughes Jones’ acting nor singing is particularly subtle but his burly persona, with a beard and bulk reminiscent of Pavarotti, display the characterisation successfully, puffing his cigar and strutting round taking snaps with his box camera in the early stages of the opera. They also play in contrast to his brief, but anguished, expressions of something approaching self-realisation, albeit with a cowardly reaction to it, at the close.

Naomi Harvey, an unlikely 15 year old Butterfly, got off to an unsteady start but gained power as the plot unfolded and gave a creditable performance in a physically demanding role in which she is on-stage for almost the complete opera. As the American Consul, Sharpless, Neal Davies gave an assured and sensitive performance, awkwardly embarrassed by the crassness of his fellow countryman and genuinely troubled by his own inability to bring himself to tell Butterfly the truth. He, together with Claire Bradshaw as Suzuki, Butterfly’s devoted and more worldly-wise servant provided the evening’s real highlights. Mention must also be made of David Soar as The Bonze, Butterfly’s uncle, a commanding figure and voice. His denouncement of Butterfly in front of her family at the wedding, for converting to Christianity, is truly chilling and we realise, as she does not yet, that she is indeed, “all alone; alone and outcast”.

And so the melodrama unfolds, but regrettably this production did not always take the audience along with it. One notable exception, the scampering entrance of Trouble Tomos Hardy the two-year old product of Butterfly and Pinkerton’s union, who remains oblivious to the emotional anguish and ultimately tragic turmoil going on around him, and whose presence brings home the embodiment of vulnerable innocence in circumstances where all the adults think they are trying to do the only right thing.

Without the rich orchestral palette of Puccini’s music this production would have been more disappointing. As it was, Gareth Jones conducted an understanding interpretation with orchestra and chorus making a strong contribution to an evening that was workmanlike but sadly uninspiring.

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