Glyndebourne’s first ever staging of Madama Butterfly is a resounding success, with hardly any weakness in either staging or singing. John Wilson, making his Glyndebourne debut, obtains wonderfully lyrical playing from an orchestra at the top of its form, with particular strengths in the woodwind and ‘cello sections – indeed, if you were likely to shed tears it might well be due to the impact of the playing rather than any emotional manipulation of the action.
Annilese Miskimmon’s production, cleverly designed by Nicky Shaw and exquisitely lit by Mark Jonathan, makes use of many ‘modern’ ideas, most of which work very well. The first scene emphasizes the truth behind Pinkerton’s lines about the American taking what he wants all around the world – his and Butterfly’s ‘marriage’ is just another in a series of Yankee-pleasing arrangements, where vulnerable Japanese girls with plain, humble faces are sold off by the likes of Goro, in the credibly oily and persuasive person of Alun Rhys-Jenkins. All the ‘hangers on’ in the first scene demonstrate the importance of detailed work in characterization, since each one, from the downtrodden Mother to the cousins, is intensely believable. The chorus’ cries of ‘Cio-Cio-San!’ were splendidly admonishing.
When Butterfly is ensconced in her ‘American home,’ she tries desperately to be ‘an American wife’ without, of course, realizing that wearing a suit, smoking and reading ‘Life’ magazine do not constitute the dubious perfection she seeks; this ‘transformation’ works very well, as does the image of mother and child (superbly played by Ethan Kerr) waiting for their hero, framed by a blue twilight. The closing moments are less successful – it’s hard not to wonder why Sorrow is unaware of what’s going on behind his back, and equally hard to feel the requisite tug on the heartstrings without a scene of ‘handing over’ or parting. Marta Fontanals-Simmons is a poised, almost frighteningly perfect Kate in this scene.
Butterfly is Karah Son’s Glyndebourne debut, and she is near-ideal in the part: she actually looks about fifteen in her wedding outfit, and manages the transition to would-be American housewife with total conviction. Both ‘Vogliatemi bene’ and ‘Un bel di’ were sung with poignant tone and achingly beautiful phrasing. Matteo Lippi, another house debutant, has a genuinely Italianate voice which he uses with immaculate taste, and he almost makes you feel for Pinkerton. Francesco Verna is perhaps on the youthful side for Sharpless, but his beautiful light baritone and his committed acting make this an interpretation to treasure.
Claudia Huckle is well known to Glyndebourne and Garsington audiences, and it came as no surprise that hers is a Suzuki with few equals; from her creamy, elegantly phrased singing to her exact impersonation of the movements of a shy servant, she drew the eye whenever she appeared. Michael Druiett’s striking Bonze and Adam Marsden’s sympathetic Yamadori were equally convincing.
Unsurprisingly the show is sold out at Glyndebourne itself, but if you live in or near Milton Keynes, Canterbury, Norwich, Woking or Plymouth you should book to see it without delay.