Madama Butterfly

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 23 November)

Once you’ve seen Annilese Maskimmon’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, specially created for the Glyndebourne Tour 2016, you’re likely to find the more usual, traditional stagings lacking. Not that this one is flawless – dropping the main curtain, rather than a gauze, to cover the scene change between the two parts of the second act just doesn’t work.

At the end of the “humming chorus”, the stage darkens leaving the upright back-turned figures of Cio Cio-San (Karah Son) and her son silhouetted as they wait for dawn and Pinkerton (Matteo Lippi). It’s a memorable and heart-breaking image (for we know what will happen next morning) that is completely negated by that curtain. Not to mention that the intermezzo bridging the two scenes is then smothered by excited audience applause followed by chatter.

Son sings with passion and lyrical fluidity; she also acts superbly as the teenager trying so uselessly to make herself into an acceptable American wife. The director and her designer Nicky Shaw have updated the action to the 1950s, and set the first act in Goro (Alun Rhys-Jenkins)’s office where we experience his production line of short-term Japanese brides for US officers in full swing. The little house above Nagasaki is a neat model for display purposes – no more real than all those brisk ceremonies we witness.

Whatever the production, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for Pinkerton, though Lippi characterises his immature personality well, epitomised by his toast to his future American wife clashing with his Japanese bride’s lyrical arrival, complete with a coterie of relations. There’s an excellently sung and acted Sharpless from Francesco Verna and an equally fine portrait of Susuki by Claudia Huckle, pragmatism always warring with sympathetic understanding.

Conductor Gareth Hancock allows the score to breathe, though never to wallow. The arrival of the Bonze (Michael Druiett) and his curse on his apostate neice is a blood-chilling moment, one which hovers in the air throughout the love duet. Seeing the uneasy hybrid which is an ancient culture fitting itself into another, more modern and brash one is the dominant theme of this production. Cio Cio-San’s adoption of western dress (she wears a kimino only for her first and last appearances) and Goro’s cynical counting the day’s takings as the last ecstatic phrases of “Vieni! vieni!” fade into the night underlines the point.

Madama Butterfly is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 26 November.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Opera, Reviews 2016

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