Puccini may have been a philanderer and scoundrel, with a Hitchcock-like tendency to put his heroines through merry hell, but my goodness, he could write an aria. Madama Butterfly, one of the most widely performed operas in the world, boasts its fair share, and is deemed to be one of the most accessible to audiences.
Set in one location – a hillside house in Nagasaki, Japan – we follow Cio-Cio-San, nicknamed ‘Butterfly’, the young bride of an American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton, as her romantic ideals are tested to their limits when he seemingly abandons her, yet she still waits hopefully for his return. The sense of tragedy is embedded from the get-go, as we know as an audience that Pinkerton has no intention of coming back, seeing the match as a short-lived one until he can find a ‘proper’ American bride.
This set-up arguably makes Butterfly still something of a challenge to deliver successfully despite its apparent simplicity, as the weight of a triumphant showing is firmly on the shoulders of our singers and orchestra. There are no trappings of grandiose sets and scene transitions to hide behind.
Tonight’s audience could breathe easy in the skilled, award-winning hands of Ellen Kent and her company, joining us (with a notable sense of poignancy) from the Ukrainian National Municipal Opera company. A beautiful set with bamboo, blossoms and gurgling water features transports us into 1904 Japan as Pinkerton and marriage broker Goro take in the rented accommodations through the opening libretto.
Kent is blessed with skilful characterisations from her leading players. Vitalii Liskovetskyi gives a competent account of Pinkerton, bringing nice flourishes of the superficial charm that allows Pinkerton to charm and seduce Butterfly (and earning him some pantomime-style booing during the curtain call, which he takes with good humour).
He is well matched by the excellent Vladimir Dragos, whose rich baritone suits the world-weary Consul, Sharpless, as he tries to warn both Pinkerton and Butterfly to be mindful of what they are getting themselves into. He also brings moments of much needed levity as he tries to convince Butterfly to move on with her life after Pinkerton’s departure.
Korean soprano Elena Dee is wonderful as Butterfly, convincingly child-like and innocent in her physicality (there are more than a few audience murmurs when Butterfly is revealed to be 15) and bringing light and shade to her performance – moving from rock-solid confidence in her love for Pinkerton with the air of someone who, naively, doesn’t know any better into crushing heartbreak as she finally accepts the reality of being abandoned. Her rendition of the most famous aria, Un bel di (One fine Day) is flawlessly delivered, with immaculate clarity.
Irina Sproglis as her dedicated maid, Suzuki, is superb – a rich mezzo-soprano that weaves exquisitely around Dee’s voice to provide some goosebump-inducing duets, particularly during Puccini’s very own ‘Flower duet’, The Cannon in the Harbour, as Pinkerton’s ship is sighted. She provides a wonderful range of emotions as she watches Butterfly’s refusal to accept the truth of her situation.
Special mention must also be made of Anthony Wood as Sorrow, Butterfly’s child. Clearly very young (in the story, Sorrow is only a few years old) at moments he almost looks overwhelmed by his surroundings but sits with incredible discipline, particularly when Butterfly blindfolds her son to prevent him from seeing the terrible actions she is about to take in the show’s finale.
Besides the gorgeous set, the performers are also aided by beautiful costumes and excellent lighting by Valeriu Curcarschi, giving us a real sense of time and a slightly mystical tone to our surroundings. The moonlit ‘Humming chorus’ as we see the silhouette of Butterfly patiently awaiting Pinkerton is a charming highlight.
One thing that lets the show down a little is that some of the supporting characters are not always audible over the orchestra. Occasionally our principals fall foul of the same issue, with libretto lost in the more excitable moments of music, particularly when actors are towards the back of the stage. It’s likely those in the back rows may have really struggled to hear at these points.
Overall, though, this is a heartfelt and powerful production, successfully whisking the audience away from the realities of the day and instead embedding them into a tale laden with authenticity where the touching yet tragic story is softened by beautiful melody.
Ellen Kent’s Madama Butterfly tours through selected dates in April and May. Tickets are available at https://www.ellenkent.com/show/madama-butterfly/ For What’s on at the Floral Pavilion, visit https://www.floralpavilion.com/
Reviewer: Lou Steggals
Reviewed: 30th March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★