Madam Butterfly, Welsh National Opera | Opera reviews, news & interviews
Madam Butterfly, Welsh National Opera
East German staging of Puccini's japonaiserie mellowed by time and language
Last week Lulu, this week Cio-Cio San, next week the Vixen Bystrouška. These are the three exemplars of David Pountney’s “Free Spirits” – as he labels his first themed season with WNO. But it’s hard to see poor little Butterfly, pinned to a board by the cruel American sailor-lepidopterist, as a free anything. Like a trapped fly, Suzuki calls her; and if there’s a free spirit in Puccini’s opera, it might rather be Pinkerton himself, “dropping anchor at random,” as he boasts to Sharpless: not such an inspiring thought.
Joachim Herz’s production, now 35 years old, was rough and aggressive when new. I remember apologising to the American friend I saw it with for its brutal anti-Americanism. In those days WNO sang it in English and the politics were direct. Now, in Italian, it has a softer edge and there is no monkeying with the words, though the music is a hybrid of Puccini’s various revisions (three acts, but no “Fiorito asil” for Pinkerton).
It now seems a model production, beautifully rehearsed by Caroline Chaney, stylishly Japanese when required in the first act, cleverly westernising later as Cio-Cio San practises being Mrs.Pinkerton. Reinhart Zimmermann’s delicate sliding screens are ideal as design and perfection as a practical, mobile setting, bearing in mind that this is an opera in three acts but only a single set. Chaney complements them with cleverly managed stage movement and telling, sensitive groupings, expressive of the culture clash which – if Madam Butterfly is anything but operatic soap – is both the landscape and the cause of its tragedy. The chorus work, as ever, is excellent (chorus pictured below).
In keeping with all this, the revival is strongly acted, perhaps less strongly – though certainly not weakly – sung. Cheryl Barker is convincing as the coy, simpering schoolgirl of the first act, slightly less so as the teenage mother of Acts 2 and 3, but a thoughtful, versatile vocal actress nonetheless, only somewhat short on colour in the voice, not quite able to flood the sound with emotion at key moments. Gwyn Hughes Jones is likewise more monochrome than recently at ENO, stylish but without great warmth in the voice, careful though to avoid caricaturing this irretrievably mindless if not unfeeling (listen to his music) Yankee fantasist.
It’s tough on Pinkerton that, after the exquisite duet that ends the first act, he more or less vanishes, along with most of the other characters, leaving Butterfly and her Suzuki, touchingly done here by Claire Bradshaw, to hope and mope alone, with occasional visits from the ever-optimistic marriage broker, Goro (Philip Lloyd Holtam, very polished). Alan Opie’s Consul struggles up the hill from Nagasaki now and then, helpless rather than Sharpless, an exact vignette: but he too gets little music after Act 1, which one regrets here as always. Instead Puccini offers cameos: the Bonze (Julian Close, a fine but brief rage), the suitor Yamadori (Alastair Moore), and above all the silent Trouble (are there such children?), a remarkable début by Jacob Adams, son of the orchestra’s leader.
Hard to improve on any of these, or on the orchestra itself, under the French conductor Frédéric Chaslin: refined playing after their more robust brilliance in Lulu, with just a slight tendency to cover the singers – not usually a Puccini problem.
- Madam Butterfly at the Wales Millennium Centre until 2 March, then on tour
- Find other performances by Welsh National Opera
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Noble choice for new Music Director under difficult circumstances
Not quite as sharp as a pen, Kosky's Shostakovich has its funny moments
Britten's drama of good and evil at sea lacerates in a strong, simple production
Vocally respectable, dramatically inept deflation of a Puccini masterpiece
A scrappy staging distracts from a superb performance of Purcell's semi-opera
Something horrifying, something sentimental in two thirds of Puccini's 'Il Trittico'
Offbeat drama and meaningful singing in Mozart's trickiest masterpiece
Spine-tingling finale to a visionary series
Cole Porter's brushed-down Shakespeare true in its fashion
Conducting, not production, kills pace, singing – and Mozart
Youthful elixir revives Haydn's sparkling material girl
This contemporary religious fantasy of a Norma creates a striking spectacle