Composer: Giacomo Puccini
English libretto: Poppy Burton-Morgan
Director: Poppy Burton-Morgan
OperaUpClose’s Madam Butterfly, with Poppy Burton-Morgan’s new libretto, remains pretty true to the original. Inevitably, with a small company, characters are cut (Prince Yamadori the main casualty) and the anti-American sentiment is made a little more explicit.
A recurrent question with Butterfly is how attractive/loathsome to make Pinkerton. The radiance of the early duets with Cio Cio San (Butterfly) suggests the conventional operatic romantic tenor, but his betrayal of her is heartless and his assumptions of superiority an unpleasant manifestation of emotional imperialism. Jonathan Cooke’s interpretation leaves no doubt. His attitude to America’s place in the world is distinctly Trump-like and, probably less deliberately, his strongly sung delivery has little hint of lyricism. His appearance in this modern-dress production is casual to the point of scruffiness, a more disreputable character than the usual trim naval officer. Furthermore the Japanese marriage broker, Goro, is transformed into Gordon (well sung by Thomas Kinch who alternates with Cooke as Pinkerton) pimping for his fellow-American. Even the consul Sharpless, in Jan Capinski’s smooth performance, is less overtly sympathetic than is sometimes the case, troubled by Pinkerton’s behaviour, but without agonising over it.
The evening belongs to Karlene Moreno-Hayworth’s Cio Cio San. In her Act 1 finery, determined to please Pinkerton in every movement and expression, she sings with beautiful lyricism, though with an unwelcome shrillness at the top in the more dramatic passages. If her performance is moving here, it is far more so as her tragedy unfolds. Looking every inch the troubled teenager, trying desperately to find cause for hope, she brings a delicate intensity to her singing (as she gets used to the Stephen Joseph’s acoustic, perhaps), her assumption of Americanism in her clothing and wall posters touchingly based on cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse.
A cast of eight also includes sterling performances from Jane Monari as a younger than usual Suzuki and Micharel Chun Ting Lam, resonant as the Bonze and the Commissioner. No chorus, though the Humming Chorus includes a few off-stage voices in support of the instrumental ensemble.
The setting has none of the pseudo-Japanese prettiness we often associate with this opera, a bleak apartment, with a terrace (roof-top, one imagines) where Cio Cio San, Suzuki and Cio Cio San’s son wait in hope for the return of Pinkerton. Ruth Chan’s reduction of the score to four instruments (keyboard, cello, viola and Japanese/Western flute) is neatly done, though we miss the emotional surge of the original accompaniment.
Runs until 14th March 2020