OperaUpClose got off to a flyer last year with their vibrant, long-running Kilburnisation of La Bohème. Now well into their Islington residency, the company’s repertoire has expanded rapidly, with Hansel and Gretel imminent and the intriguing prospect of Mark Ravenhill’s take on Monteverdi’s Poppea lined up for April. With such a busy programme, ‘London’s Little Opera House’ was bound to catch a cold somewhere along the way, and here it is.
In relocating Madam Butterfly to the world of contemporary Thai ladyboys, director Adam Spreadbury-Maher jettisons not only the gender of Puccini’s heroine but also the credibility of her final sacrifice. In this version Butterfly’s obligations to a child who is (inevitably) not her own are dictated not by blood but by custom, so why on earth does she kill herself? If the audience cannot identify with her actions it’s a tragedy built on quicksand.
Neither the staging nor the direction offers much to the players, all of whom in the cast I saw (there are three, alternating) sing proficiently or better. The absence of any sexual chemistry between Butterfly and Pinkerton (a stolid Mario Sofroniou) is curious, given the titillating premise of Spreadbury-Maher’s concept. As for the ladyboys, mostly played by western women, the lack of any attempt either to androgynise or ‘easternise’ their characters leaves us disorientated in every sense of the word.
The enterprise is ill-advised from start to finish. Laughs are cheaply won as operatic voices intone banalities: ‘awesome’, ‘asshole’, ‘American Airlines’. Alas, Jerry Springer the Opera got there first. Even bigger laughs greet the appearance of Butterfly’s son as an eerie, strapping Pinocchio puppet in a Scooby-Doo tee-shirt. The interpolation of ‘One Night in Bangkok’ from Chess is not only crass, it reminds us that musical theatre has already given Madam Butterfly a perfectly good makeover in Miss Saigon. This version is superfluous.
One conspicuously strong performance saves the production from total disaster. Margaret Cooper could carry the role of Cio-Cio San in any opera house; she has a superb voice, magnetic eyes and stage presence to spare. I cannot vouch for Cooper’s fellow Butterflys but on this showing she, well supported by Elspeth Wilkes’s discreetly secure musical direction, earns the show a second star.
- Mark Valencia