DramaOperaReviewSouth West

Madama Butterfly – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Librettists: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Director: Annilese Miskimmon
Reviewer: Helen Tope

Telling the true story of a Japanese geisha abandoned by her American husband, Madama Butterfly is one of opera’s greatest tragedies – perhaps the greatest one of all.

tell-us-block_editedThe story is irresistible: a naive 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San is married off to an American lieutenant, Pinkerton, in an ugly backstreet deal. Money exchanges hands and Cio-Cio-San is presented to Pinkerton as his Japanese bride. She is manoeuvred into Pinkerton’s life as if he were buying property. She is an acquisition, a curiosity. Her spirit and quick wit initially charms Pinkerton, who is warned by Sharpless, the American Consul (an excellent Francesco Verna), that Cio-Cio-San (nicknamed Butterfly) is beginning to fall in love with the young sailor. Sharpless advises caution; Pinkerton is in no mood to listen.

The next act sees time move on; it has been three years since Pinkerton married Butterfly. Having left shortly afterwards, he makes vague promises to return. Butterfly takes him at his word. Pinkerton eventually returns to find Madama Butterfly has given birth to his son, Sorrow. But that is not all; in a cruel twist, we learn that Pinkerton has since married an American woman and intends to go home, taking his son too. Told of her fate by her loyal friend, Suzuki, Butterfly cannot imagine a world without her husband or her son. 

With its wealth of beautiful melodies, Madama Butterfly is eternally popular with audiences. It’s been interpreted and re-imagined countless ways, and we still never tire of it. But success comes at a cost, and critics have long been suspicious of the opera’s good fortune. How can something that sounds this great possibly be good for us? Shouldn’t art nourish the soul, as well as the senses?

Director Annilese Miskimmon has, in this Glyndebourne production, come up with an elegant solution. Butterfly can be both. Setting the action in the 1950s, Miskimmon’s decision means that choices had to be made regarding scenery, costumes and make-up. Cio-Cio-San appears only twice in traditional Geisha dress; for the rest of the time, she and the rest of the cast are sartorially wedded to the 20th Century. The period details are excellent: pillbox hats; skirts with kick pleats – these are details, but they matter. They help ground the narrative in the everyday, making Butterfly’s betrayal feel all the more real.

The stage design by Nicky Shaw is stripped bare of flounces and flourishes; instead, we have outlines of cherry blossom trees, etched across a blue sky. The sets are beautifully evocative but understated, bringing the cruelty of Butterfly’s fate into sharp relief. It is simply done, but astonishingly effective and the audience gets both visual and emotional impact in equal measure.

This approach is adopted by the cast too: Karah Son as Madama Butterfly gives a powerhouse vocal performance but handles the descent of Butterfly from hope to despair with great delicacy. Claudia Huckle’s portrayal of faithful Suzuki is genuinely moving and unsurprisingly makes her an audience favourite during the curtain call.

What this production recognises – and gets right – is that if we see Butterfly as a contemporary, we see her more closely. As the story comes to an end, with all illusions shattered, Butterfly is startling in her modernity. After seduction comes truth.

With Puccini’s unflinching resolution, it is honesty at the heart of this opera. This realist interpretation has had its critics, but if you’re looking for a different take on an established classic, this production is a great place to start.

Runs until 10 December  2016 | Image: Glyndebourne

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