Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Director: Joachim Herz
Conductor: Andrew Greenwood
Reviewer: Maggie Constable
Puccini’s much-beloved Madam Butterfly brings to a climatic end Welsh National Opera’s Love’s Poisoned Chalice season at Milton Keynes this week. Director Joachim Herz’s traditional staging was first seen almost 40 years ago and certainly stands the test of time. It retains Puccini’s original concept but cleverly demonstrates imperial power at its worst. How timeless given recent happenings in the U.S.A.
The opera’s story is a well-known one, particularly since it became the basis for the Miss Saigon musical. It is based on the short story by John Luther Long. Cio-Cio San (the eponymous Madam Butterfly), a Geisha girl, has accepted an arranged marriage with a US naval officer based in Nagasaki, one Lieutenant Pinkerton. They wed and she falls very much in love with him. Pinkerton, by contrast, sees their relationship as a useful and diverting way to spend his posting in Japan. He leaves her and heads back to the States, staying away for three years. She, meanwhile, left alone and sad gives birth to their son, Trouble, but has little in the way of financial or other support. Her family has disowned her. She is encouraged by Goro, the marriage broker, to divorce the Lieutenant and to marry Prince Yamadori but her heart belongs to the former. When Pinkerton at last returns to Japan Madam Butterfly is so excited but soon discovers that he has his new American wife with him who, having heard of the birth, proposes to adopt Cio-Cio-San’s beloved son. It is then that Butterfly makes her momentous and tragic decision.
The very talented Karah Son brings us Madam Butterfly and does so with beautifully-balanced poise and passion in both her singing and her acting. She is utterly convincing in the character and has a real stage presence. We see her develop from the teenage bride to the strong and mature mother who retains still that innocent belief in Pinkerton and America. She shows us at the same time Butterfly’s real vulnerability and her grim determination and blind faith. Her mezzo-soprano voice has such power that it almost fills the auditorium. It is only occasionally, when she is towards the back of the stage, that her notes can be drowned out by the orchestra.
Jonathon Burton, in the role of Pinkerton, delivers astutely, and oft subtly, the dismissive, almost cruel Lieutenant in all his so-called superiority. It is clear but never overstated. He appears as arrogant yet also caring at odd moments. His tenor voice has a real richness and depth about it and harmonises beautifully with Karah Son’s in their duets. Although Burton does not always look the part, his voice and his demeanour definitely convey his character. He personifies all that is bad about imperialism, which is endorsed by sections of the American national anthem repeated at intervals.
David Kempster, taking on the part of the US Consul, Sharpless, allows us to see his soul, his humanity as compared to the creepy marriage broker, Goro, portrayed in an understated manner by Simon Crosby-Buttle. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, as the loyal and frustrated maid Suzuki, gives us a totally believable performance. Her facial expressions, along with the use of her voice, say it all.
Zimmermann’s set design is superb with its muted, almost sepia, colours and delicate layers of cherry blossom. It is so simple but very effective and works wonderfully with John Waterhouse’s clever and sensitive lighting. The audience is at once drawn into the ambiance of 19th Century Japan. Puccini’s powerful score never fails to move the audience, particularly in the second act, and a five-minute applause at the end confirms a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment
Runs until 25 March 2017 | Image: Contributed