Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome – Joachim Herz’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – Linda Richardson & Paul Charles Clarke; conducted by Andrew Greenwood

Madama Butterfly – Opera in two 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]

Pinkerton – Paul Charles Clarke
Goro – Simon Crosby Buttle
Suzuki – Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Sharpless – David Kempster
Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly) – Linda Richardson
Her cousin – Meriel Andrew
Her mother – Monika Sawa
Her aunt – Carolyn Jackson
Yakuside – George Newton-Fitzgerald
Imperial Commissioner – Martin Lloyd
Official Registrar – Jack O’Kelly
The Bonze – Richard Weigold
Prince Yamadori – Alastair Moore
Kate Pinkerton – Sian Meinir

Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Andrew Greenwood

Joachim Herz – Director
Sarah Crisp – Revival Director
Reinhart Zimmermann – Designer
Eleonore Kleiber – Costume Designer
John Waterhouse – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 27 June, 2017
Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome, England

WNO Madam Butterfly 2017 Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San) Leo Adams (Trouble) Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Suzuki)Photograph: Jeremy AbrahamsThe eagle-eyed will have noticed a slightly augmented cast listing (cousin, mother, aunt) for the sung roles of this Madama Butterfly, an indicator that the edition used by Welsh National Opera is not the one most of us are accustomed to either in staged performances or on recordings. The reason is that when this production was first staged in Cardiff in November 1978 Joachim Herz and the then chorus-master Julian Smith undertook some musical archaeology and produced a performing version based on a conflation of the extant three versions performed in Puccini’s lifetime. This expands the roles of Pinkerton, Sharpless and Butterfly to a significant degree, and draws into stronger contrast some of the latter’s relatives during the first Act.

The changes bring out additional facets of the drama – though not always to obvious advantage. Pinkerton, one of opera’s most dislikeable characters, becomes even more unpleasant – passing offensive remarks about his new relations and their customs as well as indicating to Sharpless all the more openly that he regards the marriage to the Geisha as disposable and transitory. Sharpless becomes more complicit in the tragic events that unfold and his weakness of resolve in facing the issues head on makes him equally culpable. Butterfly’s family members, particularly her boorish and drunken Uncle Yakuside, have greater prominence around the wedding ceremony, but dramatically outstay their welcome (as they do for Pinkerton!). Kate Pinkerton has a tiny bit more to do – and in this staging she isn’t that sympathetically depicted.

WNO Madam Butterfly 2017 Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San) Richard Wiegold (The Bonze)Photograph: Jeremy AbrahamsButterfly herself has enhanced vocal and dramatic interplay and her actions and motivations are more clearly articulated and displayed, although curiously it makes her more flighty. It’s always interesting to hear composers’ original thoughts and under Andrew Greenwood’s experienced and singer-friendly conducting the WNO Orchestra delivers the modified goods – with pace, brilliancy and allure, and with a freshness that is beguiling. There are great contributions from the Chorus, too – although the placing of the singers for the ‘Humming’ example was not perfect for this acoustic, sounding oddly forward and choppy.

Linda Richardson is a lovely Butterfly – her warm middle register standing her in good stead. She has power, poise and a gloriously expansive high register, and all these facets were evident, breathtakingly so on occasion. The more dramatic second half saw her tugging at all our emotions. From a dramatic perspective Paul Charles Clarke presents a thoroughly disingenuous Pinkerton, almost to the extent that one wondered how Butterfly could have been taken in! Vocally Clarke was not in freshest voice – somewhat constricted of tone and lacking that lyric romantic sweep that could have made Pinkerton a little more believable. David Kempster’s smooth-voiced and avuncular/world-weary persona as Sharpless were a great asset to every scene he was in – indeed the frustrations of the consul in his second Act encounter with Butterfly was almost painful to watch. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones is a very feisty if sympathetic Suzuki, and Simon Crosby Buttle and Alastair Moore make their marks as Goro and Yamadori respectively; likewise Sian Meinir’s Kate.

Herz’s production still looks well in a throwback sort of way with its gauzes and flats and autumnal colours and lighting. Despite some misjudgements – the curtain coming down after Butterfly’s watch is particularly disruptive – it has served WNO extraordinarily well.

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