Director: Lindy Hume
Welsh National Opera’s first Madame Butterfly in over 40 years is a masterclass in how to make classical opera relevant to a 21st Century audience. Take some of the best music on the planet. Perform it to perfection. Set it in modern day, in a raw yet dreamy psychological drama throbbing with emotion. If you think opera’s not your thing, this new Madame Butterfly might be a good place to revise your views.
The problem with Puccini’s much-loved opera, first performed in Milan in 1900, is the storyline. It’s so far from woke, it’s practically comatose. Wrong on so many levels nowadays, it romances the cruel story of a damaged child who is sexually exploited and socially ruined by a member of the wealthy global elite.
Pinkerton, a US Navy lieutenant, hitches up with Cio-Cio-San, a 15-year old Japanese girl known as Madame Butterfly. He’s cynical about the legality of the ‘marriage’ but she is serious about it. Predictably, he abandons her after the wedding night. She raises their son alone, in poverty and social disgrace. But Butterfly truly does love Pinkerton for life, and waits stoically for his return.
When finally he arrives, it is only to remove his son, whom she adores. He also has his new American wife in tow. Utterly betrayed and destroyed, Butterfly takes the honourable route of suicide (not a spoiler: this is tragedy). Too late, Pinkerton realises the consequences of his actions, but by then, who cares?
Director Lindy Hume says she wanted to resolve the ethical problem of watching the systematic disempowerment and wreckage of a 15-year old girl by powers she cannot comprehend. The sensuality of the Butterfly experience made previous audiences complicit in ‘a kind of exquisite sadism’. She says she wanted to find ways for moments of beauty and human connection to shine through the work’s brutality to audiences now.
And indeed she does. This performance is set in a slightly futuristic no-country that perfectly suits the dreamlike scenes. A spectacular revolving set is a modernist apartment, white metal and neon, across which subtle lights and shadows play, and butterflies flutter. The action starts with a gauze stage curtain behind which the chorus appear to be trapped, as if in a gorgeous nightmare.
There’s wit in the costumes and wigs, with characters veering from rococo tutu’d Barbie dolls to dental assistants fresh from a festival. Alexia Voulgaridou as Butterfly wears a wonderful ‘wedding’ dress with frontal frills that look like a vulva – a pretty yet visceral way of suggesting that she is vulnerable as her namesake, a butterfly who will soon be broken. Pinkerton is pleasingly dull and louche, in slightly dishevelled boring suit.
It almost goes with saying that the WNO cast and chorus are sublime, and the orchestra superb. If you ever felt like finding out what’s so great about opera, go to this musically flawless production that brings Puccini bang up to date. You’ll not be sorry you did.
Reviewed on 2 April 2022