Review: Madama Butterfly

Puccini’s popular tragic opera Madama Butterfly was given centre-stage at the New Theatre on Saturday night as part of Ellen Kent’s trio of three operas, including Rigoletto and La Traviata, which were performed this week. Set in early twentieth-century Japan, Madama Butterfly depicts the doomed love of Butterfly, or Cio Cio San, and her American naval officer husband Pinkerton, whose ultimate betrayal and remarriage leads to Butterfly’s demise in the final scene. The combination of Puccini’s soaring music and the story’s beautiful tragedy has made Madama Butterfly one of the most popular pieces in the operatic canon, and it is clear from Ellen Kent’s touring production and the audience’s roaring response that Puccini’s beautiful opera continues to engage audiences today.

Kent’s production retained the traditional approach to staging, set and costume design for which her productions are known. The stage was a beautiful, blossom-filled Japanese garden, resplendent in the colours of spring and overflowing with flowers and ornamental water features. The central focus was Butterfly’s house, constructed in traditional Japanese rural style and consisting of one room. The sumptuous stage design made the scenes a pleasure to watch, and the costumes mirrored this Eastern opulence, with characters wearing silk kimono in eye-catching colours. Kent seemed to make every character into a butterfly, able to command attention with their floating, colourful robes. Although the desire to modernise operas is often great amongst producers, and is often a crucial means of engaging with modern audiences, it is clear that by maintaining her traditionalistic approach Kent unashamedly gave the audience a perhaps romanticised, but certainly beautiful and colourful, setting for Puccini’s score.

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Considering that several of the lead singers were performing in different operas each night this week, it would be easy to assume that this would have an adverse effect on the quality of their vocal performances. However, this was not the case at all. The orchestra were full bodied and strong, supporting the male characters particularly well in the first scene, and Puccini’s wonderful intertwining of the American national anthem was made all the stronger by the confident performances of the orchestra, Pinkerton, and Sharpless. The maid Suzuki had a beautifully vibrant voice, and the blending of her voice with Butterfly’s in their duets was particularly memorable. However, from the moment Butterfly (Elena Dee) greeted her betrothed in the first act, it was clear that her voice was something truly remarkable. Soaring effortlessly into arias, Butterfly melted the hearts of the audience with her naïve charm and optimism. The duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly in the first act, beginning with Bimba, bimba, non piangere, drove many members of the audience to tears, due partly perhaps to the shared foreknowledge of Butterfly’s imminent death. Alyona Kistenyova’s voice was given its true platform in the famous aria Un bel di, which she sang with quiet restraint until its climax. If ever there was an aria to truly represent both the naïve hopefulness and ultimate hopelessness of unrequited love, the fear of betrayal and the tragedy of misdirected affection, then this is surely it.

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The chorus, although absent for much of the performance, impressed with their rendition of the Choro a bocca chiusa, or the Humming Chorus. This scene, in which Butterfly waits for Pinkerton to arrive after three years of solitude, was notable for the absence of any movement. This static scene could have been disastrous, had the audience’s attention not been captivated by the sound of the Humming Chorus from off-stage. After the calm choral finale of the second act, the third was driven with the energy of the most tragic endings. Butterfly’s realisation, farewell to her son, and death were full of an understated pathos. As Pinkerton and his new wife waited outside, too ashamed to see Butterfly, the distraught mother placed a blindfold around her son’s eyes and placed him with his toys – rather tragically, and American naval warship and a flag – as she returned to the house to end her life. The final scene was short, with the curtains falling immediately after Butterfly’s death. Yet the scene was so poignant, so full of the grief of a rejected wife, and a mother torn from her child, that the quickness of the ending was perhaps a blessing for the emotionally drained audience. 

Ellen Kent’s principles of bringing opera to wider audiences than just those living in the metropolis are attractive ones during this time of cuts to arts funding and fears about cultural elitism. The only disappointment for me during this performance was nothing to do with the production itself, but was rather the lack of diversity within the audience. Young people were few and far between, and it saddened me that so few had taken the opportunity to see such a marvellous production in their own city. The tragedy of the story of Madama Butterfly affects all of us, as we have doubtless all felt the pangs of grief, loss, or unrequited love. Through these themes Madama Butterfly speaks to everyone, regardless of age or status in society.  Puccini’s soaring music touches the emotions in indescribable ways, and I hope that more people continue to support touring productions, and to give opera a go if they haven’t yet, because, as Ellen Kent’s production of Madama Butterfly demonstrates, opera can speak to us all. 

S. Mitchell

For more information about upcoming Ellen Kent productions, please visit their website.

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