Welsh National Opera’s production of Madam Butterfly is powerful stuff. The form dictates the creation of an emotional maelstrom and anyone who knows the story will realise that they are in for a long ride on the train to tragedy. The WNO’s production is interesting in that it uses a version of the opera more closely based on the stage play which seems to be for far more culturally critical of the American characters than some others I’ve seen. Russell Thomas’ Pinkerton is a letch in the first act, completely ignoring the eyelash-fluttering romanticism of his new wife in his rush to remove her sash. In the second act he barely appears at all, his appearances those of a scolded cat, his absences seemingly indicative of a natural tendency to cowardice and lack of empathy.
Even more intriguing is the character of Kate, Pinkerton’s American wife. For the vast majority of her brief appearance she is rigid, upright and bears the plastic look of someone trying really hard to remain composed whilst doing something they detest. However the final image of her, and indeed the production, is her grinning in triumph as she holds Sorrow, Butterfly’s child who will presumably return to the States with his father. It is a gesture which suggests malice, forethought and capture and it surprised and scared the mortal hell out of me.
Similarly striking was Claire Bradshaw’s Suzuki. The character of Suzuki always seems to be highly popular with audiences, maybe because she offers some fire and spirit in the contrast to the wearying hope of her mistress. Bradshaw’s take on the character is a hyper charged up, loyal friend who looks like she might start throwing roundhouse kicks at Butterfly’s tormentors. Nothing so much sums up her interpretation as the expression on her face as Suzuki charges after Kate at the end.
It is also worth noting that on a technical level, the show is fantastic. It fitted the New Theatre like a glove and seemed perfectly at home in the space. The cast and orchestra sound wonderful and the conducting was patient and nuanced. The set and costume, by Reinhart Zimmermann and Eleanore Kleiber are simply beautiful. Multiple sets of silk sliding doors provide an interesting and versatile set that works with the absolute minimum of fuss. Many moments, far too many to mention, are treats for the eyes.
With all that is great about this production, it is not flawless. Unfortunately, the main problem is with the central character herself. Judith Howarth sings beautifully and has lovely physicality as Butterfly, but I found her characterisation, specifically in act two, to be mopey and mournful rather than inspiring of tragedy. It reminded me in places of the sloppy histrionics of a dumped teenager rather than the tumultuous ending to a live left in pieces by doomed love. Despite this, Howarth is delicate and interesting in contrast to her boorish husband in act one and for this reason, and for all of the rest of the productions strengths, I can thoroughly recommend it.
- Josh Tomalin (reviewed 4th November)