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Aching tragedy as U.S. ship come in. Madama Butterfly

15 November 2016

Madama Butterfly

by Giacomo Puccini

Ormond Opera at Richmond Unitarian Church. 12th and 13th November

Review by Mark Aspen

In the week of the US elections, when both of the major Presidential candidates have showed their disregard for how the rest of the world thinks, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly could not be more pertinent. If Puccini and his librettists (Illica and Giacosa) had not hitherto seemed prescient in choosing Nagasaki as their Japanese setting, now there can be no doubt.

The clash of cultures, shown through the personalities of Pinkerton and Butterfly, and its achingly tragic result, was scrutinised with scrupulous precision in director Mark Burns’ brilliant gem of a chamber opera. By concentrating the setting of the opera into the small space in Richmond’s Unitarian Church, the intimacy and intensity of the piece was brought to the fore.

butterfly

Photograph by  Michael John White Photography.

The crispness of minimalist cream and black design of set and costumes (by Andy and Valerie Stevens) and stripped-back music score, which had been skilfully transposed for a single piano, focussed the production on the singing and acting, and the company excelled on both these fronts. Although Madama Butterfly was originally set in the today of its first performance (in its inaugural form) in 1904, the costumes of Ormond Opera production suggested an immediate post-World War II period, which worked well with the plot. Incidentally, there were nice details in the costume. Pinkerton’s chinos and blazer with the “AL” pocket badge: a minute or two to work out: yes, he is Lt. B.F. Pinkerton of the USS Abraham Lincoln. (But why was he wearing a wedding ring, which rather prejudices the plot, while Sharpless’ designer stubble seemed a bit anachronistic?) Simon Pike’s lighting had to compete with daylight during the earlier part of the matinee performance, but this served to enhance the atmospheric effect, as Nagasaki’s night-long vigil during act two began in Richmond’s twilight.

Daniel Joy’s Pinkerton was portrayed as a cynical and insensitive manipulator.   When he takes the lease on his new house on the hill above Nagasaki, he observes that it is for 999 years, but with one month’s notice of termination: just like his contracted marriage to Butterfly, it is “elastico”.  When he first meets Butterfly, Joy shows a fleeting moment of genuine tenderness before looking her lustfully up and down; and when she reveals her age “quindici anni”, Pinkerton’s motives are clearly very doubtful indeed.   Joy’s studied acting was complemented by his strong fluent tenor voice, which was clearly delivered.

Caroline Carragher was an absorbing Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid, deeply empathetic in the role. Her creamy mezzo presentation was an absolute joy to hear, and her reflection of Butterfly’s pain was full of pathos.  In Carragher’s hands, we felt Suzuki’s sense of dread that she knew where it all would end.  That foreboding is shared by Sharpless, the US Consul at Nagasaki, played with great insight by Samuel Pantcheff, a sumptuous baritone, with an air of circumspectual discomfort.   Together Carragher and Pantcheff exuded such a sense of dreadful inevitability and their characters’ powerlessness at Butterfly’s blind emotions, that when her grand moment of misplaced hope comes, with the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship, we understand with them that “the joyous song will end with a sob” and Sharpless, totally deflated, can only utter, “Quala pieta!”.

The marriage had been arranged by Goro, securely sung and acted by Jonathon Cooke. The pragmatic Goro suggests that another match, one with Prince Yamadori, would lead to a better future.  Cooke, unusually for this role, hints that Goro really does have Butterfly’s welfare at heart and comes across far more sympathetically than he is generally played, even to the extent that, when Butterfly turns on him for his insinuations of infidelity, we almost feel sympathy for Goro.  Louis Hurst made an impressive Yamadori, his rich baritone voice and rugged looks making a regal and dignified figure.

Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, is the only one of the Japanese characters who unambiguously makes his contra views known. Tony Baker’s Bonze was patriarchal and powerful.   His purposeful entry at the wedding reception crying “rinnegato!”, makes it clear that he condemns the way she has been seduced from their culture and has renounced her religion.

Cio-cio-san, Madama Butterfly, is perhaps opera’s quintessential betrayed victim. She is innocent of her own innocence and hopeful against hope.  Rosalind O’Dowd, in the title role, gave a searing portrayal of a young girl, her utter faith in love as a concept and unfailing but fatefully misplaced faith in Pinkerton, well depicting her adamant belief in happy endings.

O’Dowd’s beautiful soprano ariettas in act one prepared the audience for the “biggy” at the beginning of act two, the famous aria “Un bel dì vedremo”, Puccini’s masterpiece, exquisitely painful in its beauty, which was deeply affecting. It was impossible not to shed tears for Butterfly’s hopes, as we know they will be cruelly shattered.  An equally touching aria was her final words to her child, Pinkerton’s son, Dolore (‘Grief’, whom she planned to rename ‘Joy’ on his father’s return), “Tu, tu, piccolo Iddio …”.

Joshua Clayton made a patiently angelic Dolore, dressed ironically in white US sailor suit and, when we first see him, hiding symbolically behind a model sailing ship. His future had already been mapped out for him, in callous disregard of butterfly, by Pinkerton, who when he makes his long-awaited return, he is not alone.  He is with an American wife, Kate, played by mezzo Tanya Hurst as palpably uncomfortable at being sucked into her new husband’s indiscretions.

The chorus, a fifteen-strong ensemble from a number of local choirs, coloured in a musical backdrop that underpinned the production with a warm enthusiasm and accurate and spirited singing as Japanese family and townsfolk, as US sailors, and as subtle commentators on the action. Their presence was, I felt, a little too understated.  This understatement did, however, work in the humming chorus which opens the warm twilight of the night long vigil while Butterfly awaits Pinkerton on his ship’s return.  Madama Butterfly is nowadays usually performed as three separate acts, but Ormond Opera had boldly decided to link the final two acts into the opera’s original configuration of its 1904 La Scala premiere.   Butterfly, Suzuki, and Dolore kneel in a tableau peering through imaginary holes that they have pierced in the shoji that forms the stage’s “fourth wall”.   The “waiting music”, during the period of the vigil, when eventually they all fall asleep one by one, did however seem rather prolonged, as the single piano does not offer the broad musical canvas of a full orchestra, and tended to lose the emotional momentum of the plot.  Nevertheless, the energetic and well-figured playing of Jakob Rothoff was delightful and Musical Director, Michael Thrift’s vision for the piece inspired.

The emotion roller-coaster that is Madama Butterfly in the skilful hands of the Ormond Opera was a bijoux production of a well-loved opera that deserves a wider audience.

While the world waits “until the robins find their nests” next spring and the US boat comes in, we can wait in hope sure that its commander will be more sensitive than the fictional Lt. Pinkerton to the cultures on other shores.

 Mark Aspen

November 2016

 

 

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