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Madama Butterfly (WNO - Biirmingham)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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I had to double-check the dates in my programme at the first interval of WNO's Madama Butterfly : I knew it was a revival, and certainly the sepia-toned set oozed nostalgia, but everything felt so fresh that I couldn't quite believe Joachim Herz's production was 35 years old! Perhaps part of that freshness stemmed from its context in the middle of the company's current 'Free spirits' triptych: the cage imagery of the previous evening's Lulu, for instance, is carried over most effectively (most strikingly in the Humming Chorus, where the back-lit figures of the two women behind their screen appear like butterflies pinned to a board) whilst the beams of Butterfly's house appear like bars of a cage, just as Lulu's myriad environments were all presented as so many enclosures. The other striking aspect of the production, for me, was the use of a composite edition of the score which takes into account Puccini's first three versions: the opera is most usually heard in its fifth (1907) incarnation, but this edition by Herz and Julian Smith includes around ten minutes of music that I'd never heard before. Though the original 1978 production wasn't conceived as part of a triptych, much of the extra material reinforces the view of Butterfly as a 'free spirit' of sorts, even as (like Lulu and Butterfly) she is constrained and animalised by the men who surround her.

Like another operatic 'free spirit', Violetta, the title-role almost requires different voices for each act: Cheryl Barker was very much an Act Two Butterfly (Smith and Herz use a two-act version), really coming into her own in the dramatic final scene where her steely spinto had no problem cleaving through the thick orchestration which often defeats lighter, more lyrical geishas. Earlier on, she was perhaps a little short on vulnerability, at least vocally speaking: the role's chock-full of pianissimo high notes and diminuendos in the upper register, but she seemed reluctant to venture much below mezzo forte for much of the first act (it didn't help that her very first entry was sung virtually centre-stage rather than from the wings, as is usually the case). Her Pinkerton, Gwyn Hughes Jones, was all the more interesting for being stolidly sung and unromantic of bearing: no globe-trotting Don Juan, this, but a charmless, slightly ungainly Yank abroad who gave the impression of a man dabbling in sex-tourism as an easy option rather than racking up yet another notch on an overcrowded bedpost. Claire Bradshaw and Alan Opie were well attuned to the pathos and occasional gentle comedy of Suzuki and Sharpless but both were frequently swamped by an over-exuberant orchestra, especially when singing from upstage. One of the most memorable performances, though, came from a silent member of the cast: Butterfly's child Sorrow always elicits tears and plentiful applause, but Dylan Sullivan made him into a real three-dimensional character, patting his mother's hair as she wept, chasing Goro off with a vengeance and - heart-breakingly - running to greet his father's ship when he heard the cannon-signal. My eye make-up was ruined.

The extra material doesn't kick in until we're a good way into Act One: there's additional music for the motley assortment of relatives, particularly the drunken uncle Yakuside (shades of Gianni Schichi here) and an oddly prosaic passage for Butterfly in the love-duet in which she bluntly informs Pinkerton that she wasn't especially taken with Goro's description of him at first but has since revised her opinion! In terms of characterisation, the differences are most keenly felt in the final act: deprived of his nostalgic moment of glory, 'Addio fiorito asil', Pinkerton becomes less sympathetic than ever, a spineless wimp who leaves his new wife to face Butterfly alone and turns away, retching, from the final scene of carnage. Usually little more than an appalled bystander, Kate Pinkerton is fleshed out into something much more assertive and ambivalent in this version (she's allocated some of Sharpless's phrases as well as some of Butterfly's), full of empathy for her predecessor but relentlessly single-minded in her pursuit of baby Sorrow. (A powerhouse cameo here, vocally and dramatically, from Sian Meinir - I'd very much like to hear her as Suzuki). Another pivotal passage is inserted before Butterfly's death, where she rejects Sharpless's offer of financial support, telling him calmly that she will have no need of his assistance: as in Lulu, the final act of this free spirit is to refuse payment from her former protector. And even by this opera's standards the final tableau is powerfully, unremittingly bleak: I won't spoil the final coup de theatre, but suffice it to say that the last, unresolved chord makes perfect dramatic sense as the curtain falls.

Katherine Cooper


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