Libretto: Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica
Music: Giacomo Puccini
Director: Ellen Kent
Reviewer: Ray Taylor
At its first performance in Milan in 1904, Madama Butterfly was a fiasco with the audience laughing and hissing. Now it is firmly established on the operatic repertoire and is loved by millions the world over for its wonderful heartfelt melodies and its tragic romantic story. A young Japanese girl, Cio-Cio-San of Nagasaki (known by her geisha name of Butterfly) falls madly in love with Lieutenant Pinkerton of the American Navy. They marry but their happiness is short-lived because Pinkerton is feckless and unreliable and only sees the relationship as a bit of fun whereas, to Butterfly, it is everything she has ever dreamed of and worth making every sacrifice for. The ending is suitably melodramatic with Pinkerton eventually returning to Japan with his new wife having abandoned Butterfly for years. Unbeknown to him he has a son whilst Butterfly has been yearning for his return every day. When she realises there is no longer any future for them she kills herself rather than live in poverty and without her love.
In the title role international Korean soprano, Maria Heejung Kim makes her UK debut. This is a very demanding role requiring a lot of vocal and stage stamina which Kim fulfils admirably. All eyes are drawn to her throughout and, if anything, she seems to get stronger as the action progresses. Here her acting skills are on a par with her vocal delivery and she also demonstrates a nice touch of humour in the appropriate bits. Her ultimate sacrifice is, of course, heartrending and the showstoppers Un Bel Di and the Love Duet are movingly and scintillatingly rendered. Kim will deservedly receive many plaudits for this performance and she has the opportunity to make this role very much her own.
Pinkerton is played by Spanish tenor Giorgio Meladze. Whilst audiences will admire his undoubted powerful singing prowess, they will not necessarily take to his character as he displays heartless cruelty in abandoning Butterfly. They may even want to good-humouredly boo him at the curtain call. Meladze makes for a dashing enough American lieutenant that attracts an impressionable girl and is impeccable in his scenes with her. The justly famous Love Duet continues to bring a tingle to the spine and is the high point that closes the First Act. It is interesting to read about Puccini’s difficulties in structuring the opera as he was faced with the little matter of what to do with Pinkerton – his male lead who, because of the demands of the narrative vanishes from the opera for most of the second half.
The third principal is Sharpless, the US Consul and Pinkerton’s senior friend, here played by baritone Iurie Gisca. He is given limited opportunity to display his rich baritone voice and his role is largely perfunctory to the plot, but he does manage to convey real emotion and skill in the scene where he tries to deliver Pinkerton’s letter to Butterfly explaining that he will not be returning and that he has, in fact, remarried.
This production is beautifully set with an exquisite traditional Japanese garden in which tinkling water can often be heard to complement the action. It also features spectacular costumes including antique Japanese wedding kimonos. The whole company is admirably served by a full live orchestra under the experienced baton of Vasyl Vasylenko.
This new production by Ellen Kent is definitely highly recommended and one not to miss if given the opportunity.
Touring Nationwide | Image: Contributed