Opera Holland Park 2013 – Puccini’s Madama Butterfly [Anne Sophie Duprels & Joseph Wolverton; directed by Paul Higgins]

Madama Butterfly – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica after David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly based on John Luther Long’s short story after Pierre Loti’s tale Madame Chrysanthéme [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly) – Anne Sophie Duprels
Pinkerton – Joseph Wolverton
Suzuki – Patricia Orr
Sharpless – David Stephenson
Goro – Robert Burt
Kate Pinkerton – Chloe Hinton
Bonze – Barnaby Rea
Prince Yamadori – John Lofthouse
The Imperial Commissioner – Henry Grant Kerswell
The Official Registrar – Alistair Sutherland
Butterfly’s Mother – Lindsay Bramley
The Aunt – Loretta Hopkins
The Cousin – Maud Millar
Yakuside – Nathan Morrison
Sorrow – Ben Bristow or Oliver Garcia

Opera Holland Park Chorus

City of London Sinfonia
Manlio Benzi

Paul Higgins – Director
Neil Irish – Designer
Richard Howell – Lighting Designer
Namiko Gahier-Ogawa – Movement Director

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 8 June, 2013
Venue: Opera Holland Park, Kensington, London

Madama Butterfly, Opera Holland Park, June 2013. Photograph: Fritz CurzonA day of almost continuous warm weather in London should have portended comfortable conditions for this performance in Opera Holland Park’s outdoor theatre as the sun went down. Unfortunately a blustery wind which rattled the drapes at the sides of the auditorium made opera-going something of an ordeal, partly alleviated for those who, like my neighbour, came equipped with thick blankets for self-insulation. Few in the audience appeared to be demoralised by the weather; rather they seemed enraptured by the emotional impact by the opening night of this new production of Madama Butterfly, which benefited greatly from containing no concept other than that imagined by the composer and librettists. There was no updating, no attempt (not needed to help us relate to the action by contemporary reference, and no mixture of anachronistic costumes or props. For anyone who dreaded the prospect that the production team might drag in the Japanese tsunami, nuclear plants or the economic crisis, the staging is reassuringly straightforward.

That is not to say that Paul Higgins and his team do not have illuminating ideas to present about what can easily turn into a routine opera. Indeed some of the direction of the principals and in particular the chorus will remain long in the memory. Designer Neil Irish had constructed a single set of the inside of Butterfly’s house with appropriate sliding panels, while leaving plenty of stage for the acting area. The walls could be lit to depict outdoor conditions, which they were on several occasions with suitable effects on dramatic mood. Décor was minimal.

Pride of place must go to the performance of the name part by Anne Sophie Duprels. The Holland Park audience has privileged access to this singer and her talents, as she has been their house prima donna for some years. She reminded me of Elizabeth Vaughan, spare of physique yet with reserves of vocal power which enabled her to fill Puccini’s lines with emotionally charged tone. Not that she treated the part as “one long yell”, as I once heard it described. She declined the climactic top D flat in Butterfly’s offstage entrance.

Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly, Opera Holland Park, June 2013). Photograph: Fritz CurzonHiggins never let it be forgotten that Cio-Cio-San is a dancer. As she circled the stage at her first appearance it was with dancing movements that propelled her and stylised use of her hands and arms that established her as a person. The character of the naive fifteen-year-old came alive from the moment of her guileless explanation of how she became a geisha and quickly gelled in the conversation with Pinkerton over her treasured possessions. She began the love-duet prostrate upstage, undergoing the ritual removal of her obi but raising her hands once more in a gesture of resistance and self-defence before the clearly signalled moment of surrender. The voice opened up lavishly in the final pages. At the start of Act Two Cio-Cio-San was palpably weakened. As she came out of the interior she staggered and fell, setting up the atmosphere of pathos which was to last for the rest of the opera. ‘Un bel di’ (One fine day) was finely paced, the soprano’s tone expanding as the pictures in her imagination of Pinkerton’s return became more explicit and detailed. The scene with the consul was particularly powerful. Butterfly’s cultural estrangement was symbolised by her westernised dress and her hair, which she lifted in embarrassment at the entry of Sharpless.

The latter’s internal torture was unmistakable as he saw all his misgivings from Act One coming to pass and strongly sung by David Stephenson throughout. Cio-Cio-San had eagerly taken the letter sent by Pinkerton. At the moment of Sharpless’s question “Suppose Pinkerton were never to return?” (greeted with a single bang on the kettle drum – a typically economical device of Puccini’s with an emotional impact out of all proportion to its simplicity) she froze and dropped the letter. For ‘Che tua madre’ (which never feels like an aria in an opera which is substantially through-composed) she took her child away from the consul, down to the footlights and delivered it to him confidentially, as if turning her back on the representative of the United States; this was another thoughtful detail in Duprels’s conception of the part. When Pinkerton’s ship was sighted she clearly felt elated but acted as if she did not know what to do. Eventually she made a shrine with the stars and stripes, now apparently vindicated and the one piece of stage furniture, a wooden chair, placing on it the letter, now recovered from the place where she has dropped it.

The vigil was acted in dumb show and beautifully lit. When she returned after her brief spell offstage in the final scene Duprels showed that the strategic control of her vocal resources had left sufficient reserves of stamina for the taxing emotional and physical conclusion. Her entrance was frenzied and in a fine directorial apercu neither Suzuki nor Sharpless could bear to look her in the eye. Her command to leave her alone with her son was reminiscent of one of those implacable operatic female characters such as Norma or Medea. In an article in the programme booklet the soprano spoke of finding a way to die convincingly. Here she did not need to do anything spectacular. Butterfly had acquired enough moral authority to move the blindfolded child out of the vicinity before moving well upstage and stabbing herself with her back to the audience. This is as persuasive an account of Butterfly’s journey through unbearably painful experiences as is before the operatic public today.

In any performance Cio-Cio-San dwarfs all the other characters. In this case Pinkerton was vocally no match for his child bride. Joseph Wolverton was over-parted in the role, out-sung by Goro in the first Act and unable to make much impact against orchestral tutti. Dramatically he created a credibly caddish sailor in the first Act, unashamed of his colonialist behaviour. However, there was warmth and consideration in his wooing. His running exit in the final scene, after a decent rendering of ‘Addio, fiori’, may have been rather too much like an urban jogger, but his remorse seemed genuine enough.

Patricia Orr played Suzuki as a dedicated companion, protective of the heroine, and singing in a firm, rich mezzo. Robert Burt revealed a useful character tenor as Goro, while the minor roles were consistently well cast. Act One demonstrated Higgins’s skill in Personenregie. His direction of Butterfly’s relatives brought out the gossipy, petty and spiteful nature of individuals among them, while the intervention of the Bonze, who denounces Cio-Cio-San for betrayal of her religion, gave him the opportunity to treat them collectively: they were obviously terrified of him and responded to each of his anathemas with simultaneous gestures of horror, before assembling into a herd of frightened people cowering at the front of the stage.

The City of London Sinfonia, OHP’s resident orchestra, is not a specialist opera band and there was certainly something missing in a performance by what amounted to a chamber orchestra. More seriously, the acoustics of the theatre have a deleterious effect on the orchestral sound, at least from my seat parallel to the pair of French horns, whose sound stood out above everything else whenever these musicians played above mezzo piano. Even the soprano climaxes were often submerged. It is therefore difficult to assess Manlio Benzi’s conducting.

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