Madam Butterfly – Birmingham Hippodrome

Composer: Giacomo Puccini

Director: Joachim Herz

Reviewer: John Kennedy

A Marxist/Leninist rationale might have Madam Butterfly’s libretto seen as a retro-appropriated allegory of US colonial cultural and patriarchal exploitation. But then, opera never did really catch on in the Gulags.

Meanwhile,  feminist critiques might suggest cynical, gender-bias hegemony. Ergo: in a Man’s world – things never change – tutti gli uomini sono bugiardi e bastardi. Senior Puccini, your post-Romantic realism resonates still as a potent potpourri of fantastic musical worms.

But tonight, the audience haa had enough of politics, surrendering instead its hearts, souls and ears to the evocative ecstasy and compelling tragedy of Butterfly. But the moral, like the songs, remains ever the same – Cho-Cho-San’s innocence betrayed by the culturally vacuous, ultimately cheating Lieutenant Pinkerton – bugiardi e bastardi indeed.

Director, Joachim Herz eschews the heartthrob dashing, crisp white naval gallant Pinkerton motif. More the middle-aged, patrician boor, smug with venal condescension. The growling, prowling, Paul Charles Clarke, says it all.

As the doomed child-bride, Linda Richardson’s flexibly fifteen-year-old Butterfly both convinces and captivates. Act One’s closing duet with Pinkerton climaxes with –Vogliatemi bene/Love Me please – a tantalising aperitif for her much-lauded Act Two aria, Un bel di/one fine day.  But it’s all going to end in tears.

Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’ servant, Suzuki, remains Cho Cho’s loyal compass. Her rustic brown costume contrasts with poignant irony set against Butterfly’s brilliant white, bridal costume. She is the compassionate witness, the ancient tragedian chorus, desperate to voice a collective howl of rage against her mistress’ exploited naïvety.

Reinhart Zimmermann’s set design – a static Japanese traditional partitioned interior, framed by an exterior bower of filigree, blossomed trees, allows for scene and song transitions to slide with fluidity.

When Butterfly, boy child and Suzuki, stand in static tableau, behind a subdued lit partition, it epitomises her desperate plight – there’s not a dry dagger in the house that would not rather her use it on Pinkerton than herself. He boasts to The Ambassador that he has taken a 999 year lease on a discreet house on the hill over-looking Nagasaki, he’ll take himself a convenience bride before returning to the USA to find a proper wife. He can cancel at a month’s notice and pack his cases. One hopes a passing Samurai might assist by putting him inside them. Powerful, resonant and perpetually relevant, WNO’s Madame Butterfly is a delicious interpretation of Puccini’s  parable of vulnerability in timeless voice and verse.

Runs until 30 June 2017 | Image: Jeremy Abrahams

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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