David Freeman’s Madam Butterfly is described in advertising as ‘spectacular’, and yet the merits of this ‘in-the round’ production, which has appeared at many venues since its creation in 1998, surely derive from the fact that it isn’t! There is naturally a lot of activity, but just as important are the attention to detail and, at times, sense of restraint that are brought to the large-scale staging.
Walking into the Albert Hall we see the entire arena taken up by the set, which proves to be a well-balanced composition. Pinkerton’s house stands in the centre and, since it exists purely as a skeleton frame, is viewable from all seats. The dwelling is surrounded by water, while wooden gangways run around the arena’s edge, priests pray on a pontoon and fishermen mend their nets.
Colour and lighting are exploited to contrast Pinkerton’s house with its surroundings. His abode exudes red and pink hues while everything else is bathed in paler blues and whites. The specific colours employed are less important perhaps than the act of contrasting them, which highlights how Pinkerton has planted a little of his own America in the heart of Japan. True, the house sports ‘Japanese’ features such as flowers climbing the timbers and shoes lying outside the entrance, but it feels like an image of Japan that Pinkerton has exploited for his own ends, just as he taken advantage of a 999-year lease that can be cancelled at any moment.
Characters and crowds regularly enter and exit via the stalls and this has both advantages and disadvantages. Cio-Cio-San’s first appearance is effective as the female chorus enter before her in Indian file so that there is some sense in which her own voice rises over them. On the other hand, although it is right that minor figures should remain in character as they leave the arena, because they often end up closer to us as they work their way up the stalls, they can command our attention more than the main performers who remain further away. Sometimes it feels as if a little more choreography is required as when the crowds enter for the wedding they do little more than stand around before packing in so tightly that they obscure the ceremony itself. There are exceptions to this point, however, and pleasing details include watching one woman running to fetch a little girl to observe the ceremony itself, and the taking of a photograph in which not everything goes according to plan!
Acts II and III present fewer opportunities for a staging such this to come into its own, since they do not involve crowds in the same way. Nevertheless, the bearing of paper lanterns at the end of Act II is moving, and it is clever to show Cio-Cio-San’s son interacting with Japanese children as it exposes any suggestion that he is being taken to America for his own good.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra delivers a fine account of Puccini’s score under the baton of Oliver Gooch. The singers stay very well in time with the orchestra, while successfully disguising their glances to the monitors dotted around as dreamy gazes to the heavens. With, however, the orchestra and performers physically so distant from each other, there does not seem so great an affinity between the two, and it can feel as if the latter are merely singing along to the ‘soundtrack’ being generated.
The performers are amplified, and this is understandable. Although it is possible for opera singers to fill the Albert Hall without any aids, it is certainly not easy to do so whilst acting and facing in all directions. It is also the case that microphones can demand even greater levels of precision, as any inaccuracies are multiplied out, and the singers here meet the challenge well by delivering very smooth accounts.
Jeffrey Gwaltney, recently seen as Dick Johnson in Opera Holland Park’s La fanciulla del West, has a light yet full and rounded tenor voice, and carries the right sense of aloofness and expectancy. While, however, chemistry is not entirely lacking between him and Cio-Cio-San at the end of Act I, it could be stronger. If Pinkerton thinks little about long-term stability with Butterfly, then surely his tendency to live for the present would see him in that moment having strong feelings towards her.
Hyeseoung Kwon initially lacks a real sense of innocence, naivety and sensitivity to make us feel for her, but she does grow over the evening towards the tear jerking finale. There is also a lot of detail in her facial expressions so that we really sense her confusion as Sharpless utters the unknown word ‘ornothology’ (the production employs Amanda Holden’s English translation); pride as she points out that American marriage lasts for ever, and excitement as she repeatedly interrupts Sharpless’ attempts to read her the letter. Her voice is strong and vibrant, and she delivers a stirring performance of ‘Un bel dì’.
Enunciation is generally reasonable, but, especially in the absence of surtitles, there are times when it needs to be better. There are no diction problems, however, with David Kempster who is a superb, and suitably torn, Sharpless, while Sabina Kim is an excellent Suzuki. A final mention should go to Seth Stokes as the son. There are very few five-year olds (purely my guess at his age) who could remain on stage for as long as is required by this production without breaking character, and the moment in which he shakes Sharpless’ hand is as heart wrenching as anything to be found during the evening.
Casts and conductors vary over the run. For further details visit the Royal Albert Hall website.