Madama Butterfly – Theatre Royal, Norwich

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Librettists: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Director: Annilese Miskimmon
Reviewer: Lu Greer

Many of the audience in attendance for Madama Butterfly have seen countless Glyndebourne performances before, and they’ve always been carefully staged, beautifully performed, and deeply moving. Annilese Miskimmon directing of this run of a much-loved classic, however, has led to a re-imagining of much of the show, and a complete break from the original staging. For a show that frequently brings in the same audiences, many of whom adore the previous productions and wait excitedly for booking to open each time the show is slated to return, this is certainly a bold move.

tell-us-block_editedIt is clear from the outset that Miskimmon’s version is changing a lot of what is taken for granted. Instead of Pinkerton’s house at Nagasaki harbour, the curtain opens on an office belonging to Goro (Alun Rhys-Jenkins) the marriage broker. It is immediately apparent that the commentary on the exploitation of the young Japanese woman will be more overt here, as multiple American soldiers flick through catalogues to choose their short-term wives, followed by Butterfly and Pinkerton watching a film on GI brides. At this point, the cynicism is striking and neatly encompasses a theme throughout, of the juxtaposition of the seemingly happy and familiar song, with the reality that Butterfly faces. This break from tradition continues through the second half, with Butterfly, her son, and their home kitted out in what they perceive to be a traditional American style highlighting the extent of her naivety of American customs.

The lights (Mark Jonathan) and staging also serve to add to the new feel of the show, with the changing sky reflecting the changing emotions, and the subtly moving scenery adding a few visually stunning moments without detracting from the story.

While this re-imagining changes what the audiences have come to expect of Madama Butterfly, as always with Glyndebourne it is the voices the audience expects to leave in raptures over. Karah Soh makes an excellent Butterfly, not just with her impressive vocal range, but also in her portrayal of the character’s change from act one to act two. Her portrayal of the nervous young girl, in the middle of her family and a whirl of contract signing would be deeply affecting, even without the depth of emotion in her song. Pinkerton (Matteo Lipi), too, is given more depth than is often expected, as his phrasing and tone are excellent, and he creates a sympathetic character who’s regret hangs off his every action leaving the audience saddened for the traditional villain of the show. While the majority of the additional cast are solid, few stand out at all, with the exception of Claudia Huckle as Suzuki, who’s portrayal of Butterfly’s distraught friend trying to break to her the worst possible news, moves even the most stony faced member of the audience, as her own body crumples with the emotion.

Overall, the staging bringing a new focus to the show and, for an audience who may have watched one incarnation or another a dozen times, there is certainly a new depth and impact to some of the emotion. While the cast can’t be said to be the strongest, they are all talented in their own right, and seeing the way Suzuki is brought to life would be worth attending alone.

Runs until 26 November 2016 | Image: Glyndebourne

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