WNO’s Lulu / The Cunning Little Vixen / Madame Butterfly (Plymouth)

There’s rather a lot of hanging around in the Welsh National Opera’s currently touring triple.

Suspended from hooks above the action are the corpses of femme fatale (literally) Lulu’s ever-increasing collection of dead husbands while knitting sparrows apparently discuss risqué topics in hovering rocking chairs in The Cunning Little Vixen,. And Madame Butterfly spends an inordinate amount of time listlessly ‘hanging around’ naively expecting the return of the love of her life.

An odd collection really: from the sordid tale of Lulu through the pastoral romp of Vixen to the wistfulness of Butterfly.

I’m afraid I did not get on with Lulu. Staging is excellent but I do not have the ear for atonal, twelve-tone music and Alban Berg is a master of that genre. That said mezzo soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, stand-in as the devoted Countess Geschwitz, is excellent and some of Berg’s German-sung trite lines filtered through: ‘too poor to even own a towel’, ‘there is the door’ and, as Jack the Ripper haggles price with his chosen prostitute of the night, ‘I need change for my bus fare’. Hmmm.

But luckily director David Pountney has created a spectacle which keeps the attention for the three-and-a half hour marathon.

Johan Engles’ set – cage-like metal frameworks and spiral staircase, fleshy contoured bed and Dada-like sculpture – keeps the audience firmly in mind of the human circus unfolding before it. And Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s magnificent costuming reflects that with animal heads, flapper chic and vibrant colours contrasting with the dour clothing of down-and-out London.

Marie Arnet is every inch (as shown with no-holds barred nudity) the part as the eponymous object of Everyman’s lust, bass Richard Angas controlled as Schigolch and the Animal Tamer and baritone Ashley Holland effusive as both Dr Schon and Jack the Ripper.

Second up is Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Stylistically Japanese and very pretty (but somewhat sepia with the set and costuming in unrelieved brown, beige and cream).

Reinhart Zimmermann’s sliding screens provide movement and versatility for action given that all three acts take place on the single set.

Caroline Chaney confidently directs Joachim Herz’s 35-year-old production, contrasting the tradition of Japan with the brashness of America in set pieces and stereotypical cameos.

Tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones is the manipulative Lieutenant Pinkerton but his voice, like his character, lacked depth of feeling while Cheryl Barker sings Cio-Cio-San competently and plays her beautifully but occasionally the WNO orchestra, under the direction of Gareth Jones, is a little enthusiastic and takes over.

Alan Opie sings a sympathetic baritone Sharpless and the chorus is a delight as is mezzo soprano Claire Bradshaw as Suzuki. But stealing the show is Trouble (either Jacob Adams or Dylan Sullivan) – a charming portrayal by an incredibly well-behaved young child.

Third in the Free Spirits trio is Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen sung in English (director David Pountney’s rather clumsy translation).

On Maria Bjornson’s “Danny Boylesque” bucolic set myriad creatures – including shimmering dragonflies, hand jiving moles and grumpy badgers – gambol, live and die.

Sophie Bevan is the rich-voiced vivacious vixen whose exploits include assassinating chickens who refuse to shed their sexual slavery and embrace feminism, fending off randy dogs, expounding socialism and escaping the abuse of the Foresters’ sons while Jonathan Summers is her captor entranced by her. Disappointingly however their relationship is not explored at all so providing no framework for understanding his whimsy or that the relationship had been a newspaper-worthy scandal (until it is thrown in as an aside much later).

There are some lovely performances by children and plenty of dancing creating a chocolate box visual but not much substance.