Welsh National Opera at Sadler’s Wells – Madama Butterfly (10 March)

Madama Butterfly

Lieutenant BF Pinkerton – Stephen O’Mara
Goro – Philip Lloyd Holtam
Suzuki – Claire Bradshaw
Sharpless – Christopher Purves
Cio-Cio San – Nuccia Focile
Cousin – Yolande Jones
Mother – Nicola Morgan
Aunt – Dorothy Hood
Uncle Yakuside – George Newton Fitzgerald
Imperial Commissioner – Alastair Moore
Official Registrar – Jack O’Kelly
The Bonze – Vassily Savenko
Prince Tamadori – Gareth Rhys-Davies
Kate Pinkerton – Marion McCullough

Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Julian Smith

Original Director – Joachim Herz
Revival director – Robin Tebbutt
Set design – Reinhart Zimmermann
Costume – Eleonore Kleiber
Lighting – Clive Pleasants (after John Waterhouse)

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 10 March, 2004
Venue: Sadler’s Wells, London

This, the first of two scheduled performances at Sadler’s Wells this week, was a very strong revival of Joachim Herz’s successful 1978 production of Puccini’s first operatic success, and showed WNO at its repertory best. Despite its age the production has worn very well and still packs a fair dramatic punch. There was a well-balanced cast, encapsulating two exciting performances amongst the major roles, and some fine ensemble playing both on the stage and in the pit.

What has always been interesting about this WNO version is the fact that the score played is not the normally heard third version but is inclusive of music from earlier versions. Thus some of the minor roles are restored in the scenes depicting the run-up to Butterfly and Pinkerton’s marriage preparations, and one also gets a different perspective on some of the other characters – especially Kate Pinkerton, who instead of being an entangled and relatively tacit observer of the aftermath of her husband’s duplicity, emerges as another foreign character with her own insensitive agenda and largely ambivalent to Butterfly’s predicament. It makes the end that much more uncomfortable and dramatic. Julian Smith led the orchestra through his own edition of the opera with persuasive and responsive tempi that helped the drama along, and he was very sensitive to his singers who could all be heard with ease and clarity.

One also registered the “new” music without feeling that this was being sign-posted. I also liked the fact that this is not a very romantic, grand-operatic view of the score but one with a real propulsive energy. The orchestra played well for him and the Intermezzo between Acts Two and Three was well played. I only wish the curtain did not come down at this point as it encouraged a barrage of coughing and whispering!

Madama Butterfly is an opera that very much relies on the performance of the title role to carry it, and in Nuccia Focile WNO has a singer who has all the necessary weapons to surmount the difficulties of the role and truly possesses the character. Vocally she is able to suggest Butterfly’s 15-year-old innocence on her first appearance which in this production is visible on stage rather then heard from the wings, and yet she has the stamina to surmount the big-sing challenges of the later acts, at least in a medium-sized house like Sadler’s Wells. She is also convincingly small of frame and has a very appealing and expressive face and eyes used to portray Butterfly’s emotional state extremely convincingly.

Many theatrical touches abound in her dramatic performance – her playful “teaching” of Pinkerton how to bow gracefully and her smiling love-smitten tolerance of his endless and embarrassing gaffes. Her complete shock at Sharpless’s first suggestion that Pinkerton might not return was very arresting, and her confusion, and subsequent realisation of what has occurred when she first sees Kate Pinkerton in her garden was touching too, tinged with an anger that she did not appear to have the maturity to express effectively as registered by her attempting to vent her anger on Suzuki and then caressing her momentarily instead. A smashing performance!

The other role that was extraordinarily well played and sung was that of Sharpless, as realised by Christopher Purves. Sung in his rich, focussed baritone, he managed to register Sharpless’s distaste with his predicament and wariness of Pinkerton from very early on. His look of horror when he realised Butterfly is 15 really made one sit up and register that this is a sordid but also extraordinarily contemporary story given the regularity with which issues of paedophilia are reported in today’s press. Notable also was the way that his character evidently had his own demons and flaws and was not averse to pocketing a few of the pictures of Goro’s other girls. There was a suitably increasing sense of desperation as Pinkerton’s actions embroil him further in the tragedy and his inability to handle Butterfly’s emotion state.

Stephen O’Mara played Pinkerton, and he acted the role extremely well playing the emotionally immature, insensitive and gaffe-prone American. Tall, blond and with a cheeky-chappy smile, his attraction for Butterfly was very plausible. Vocally though he perhaps lacks the ringing tenor the part really needs – it always sounds as if it some of the sound is getting stuck somewhere and not being fully projected, which can make him sound very strained. Among the smaller parts Claire Bradshaw’s concerned Suzuki was strong as was Marion McCullough’s stiff and formidable Kate.

Butterfly’s home, with its many sliding doors through which one can always see background action with varying degrees of clarity, dominates the stage and is surrounded by a halo of blossomed trees. This setting has worn well, even if it now looks a little bit old-fashioned, but it serves the drama well and at least is not distracting, and the lighting is very effective. On this showing both Herz’s production and the opera itself, which can be over-prettified, still have a lot of life in them yet.

WNO are touring this production and their productions of Madama Butterfly and Hänsel und Gretel to the Birmingham Hippodrome, Milton Keynes Theatre, Southampton Mayflower Theatre, Swansea Grand Theatre and Bristol Hippodrome in the forthcoming weeks.

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