Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Director: Joachim Herz
Conductor: Lawrence Foster
Reviewer: Emily Pearce
Welsh National Opera continues its ‘Love’s Poisoned Chalice’ season with the second of its Puccini operas, Madam Butterfly. This popular production by Joachim Herz has been revived several times since its premiere in 1978, and with the simple, yet effective set allowing the score to take centre stage, you can see why.
The opera opens with a marriage celebration, a young Japanese woman, Cio-Cio-San (Madam Butterfly), has agreed to an arranged marriage with Lieutenant Pinkerton of the United States Navy. She is in love with him, but he sees it simply as an amusing distraction during his posting to Japan. Leaving his bride behind him, Pinkerton returns to the US for three years, during which Cio-Cio-San is reduced to poverty and gives birth to his child. Pinkerton finally returns, but with a new, American wife. When they hear about the child, Pinkerton and his wife ask to adopt him. In despair, knowing that they will be able to look after him better than she can, Butterfly says goodbye to her son and kills herself. This is opera at its most tragic, and Puccini’s heart-rending score builds the sense of impending doom beautifully.
The three-decade-old production has lost none of its lustre. The set and costumes are awash in sepia and brown tones, giving the impression of old, nostalgic photos. The young Cio-Cio-San is just another photograph, a memento collected by Pinkerton as he sails the world with his camera. As the tension builds to its heart-wrenching climax, the once open, airy Japanese rooms now seem claustrophobic and oppressive – a prison for Madame Butterfly as her hope of a happy reunion with Pinkerton wanes. With everything on the set being brown or beige, it is a shame that more wasn’t made of the blood when Cio-Cio-San commits her final act. It’s not usual that one would wish for there to be more blood and guts, but here it would have provided a shocking contrast to the otherwise civilised tones, and it feels like a moment wasted.
What tilts this performance into something very special is the first class singing, particularly by a flawless Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San. Trained by Mirella Freni, one of the most famous Madam Butterfly depictions, you can feel the prima donna’s influence throughout. Karah Son effortlessly captures both the innocence and then the sublime heartbreak of unreturned love in her stately, yet vulnerable performance.
Pinkerton is creepy, shallow and filled with lust – all compliments to the confident, prowling performance by Jonathan Burton, who is supported magnificently by David Kempster as the worried and stately Consul. With recent political events in the US still fresh in the mind, the haunting recurrence of the star-spangled banner throughout Puccini’s score, and the Pinkertons’ easy dismissal of Cio-Cio-San and her culture, somehow seems more poignant than it might usually.
WNO’s Madam Butterfly is opera at its traditional best, a ravishing production with not a dry eye in the house by its tragic climax.
Runs 10, 12, 17 &18 February 2017 | Image: WNO