Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Director: Joachim Herz
Reviewer: Kris Hallett
Welsh National Opera’s Poisoned Chalice season ends with arguably its greatest hit, Joachim Herz’s 1978 production of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly. These themed seasons work well, both from a financial and artistic point of view, with two big hitters propping up a more obscure third title. So while La Vin Herbe may not have packed out the Hippodrome, both Puccini’s in this season pack out the rafters with traditional takes that may feel a little out of vogue in the cult of directors’ theatre, but provide grand showcases for the music and the singers to work their magic.
Not that this staging doesn’t bask in its own visual sumptuousness. Reinhart Zimmerman’s brown hued cherry blossom set with a miniature version of the town of Nagaski in its bottom corners is one of those iconic sets that should be tacked to any stage designer’s workshop. It tells so much in its one abstract design, the mystery and exoticism to Western eyes of the Orient, the fading of vitality (and of love) from Summer into Autumn, its own sense of visual wonder to match the motifs of the music.
And what wonders these motifs are. Puccini’s score is lush and full of drive. Under the baton of Andrew Greenwood, the WNO orchestra match its considerable challenge. From the blasts of the star-spangled banner, to the authentic Oriental melodies, the famous humming chorus and the show stopping Un bel di, this is one of the most recognised scores in all opera and, as a longstanding part of the repertoire, one that feels like it has seeped into the DNA of of all who play it.
On press night, Karah Son originally down to sing the role of the Butterfly was off and so cover Natlya Romaniw made her company and role debut. As one of the iconic roles in opera you’d expect some first night nerves, but this Welsh soprano – with a Guildhall gold medal pedigree – barely blanches. Her tone will balance more as she relaxes into the roles demands, but she already combines the timid and bashful young teen who falls in love with the wrong man, to the deluded romantic waiting for her husband to return home, to the grieving but resolute mother prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for her son. It’s a performance that more than merits the rapturous applause received.
Jonathan Burton as Pinkerton is an A grade asshole with a Westerner sense of entitlement who only ever sees this marriage as a brief dalliance before his real life starts back at home. He plays the arrogance so well that even in the couples startling love duet in Act I it is difficult to see his words as anything but false news. David Kempster is the other side of the American coin as Sharpless, a cigar chomping pragmatist but keenly aware that this is a love story that will turn sour.
In a theatre climate where cultural approximation is a hot topic it would be remiss not to mention a chorus performance that makes one cringe at its painful stereotype. Opera companies need to be aware of this and stamp it out, performances that haven’t been deemed acceptable since the 1970s have no place on our stages.
Its the only bum note though of a production that both musically and visually ravishes the senses. Other companies feel the need to freshen up their long runners after almost half a lifetime; let’s hope WNO see sense and keep this one in the cupboard for many years to come.