Review: WNO - Madam Butterfly @ WMC
Having originally been staged all the way back in 1978, there have now been over 200 performances of this production since then. On the opening night for it this season, the performance was dedicated to Professor Joachim Herz, the original director. He passed away in 2010 and his widow Frau Kristel Pappel joined us to celebrate and honour his memory. Nice to see the little sheet about him added into the programme.
Although my musical taste leans towards the modern/experimental music of the 20th Century, I am still a sucker for Puccini. His operas are some of the most preformed around the world and Madam Butterfly is no exception. It is one of the most famous operas ever written. Through all the adaptations of the story (films, Miss Saigon, plays) there is truth in it. Apparently the real Madam Butterfly lived till she was 100, on a remote island in Japan and recovered it would seem from her misfortunes.
The story here is quite simple. Butterfly or Cio-Cio San as she is called in Japanese, is to marry Pinkerton, an American Lieutenant. This is a time when the Far East is opening out to the rest of the world. He finds humour in the lack of commitment for men in a Japanese marriage, in which he has the option to divorce once every month. Staggering really. He is not the most likeable of characters, a sort of antagonist but borders on a villain in some respects. But his music at first would say otherwise.
He callously marries her and vows to return one day, only after her family disown her through the revelation she has converted from Buddhism to Christianity. This lead to a great cameo by her uncle, The Bonze played by Julian Close. He arrives on stage bold headed, in a cream and white robe with a large hair whip in a very grand posture, ready to pounce on Butterfly. It almost evoked Kabuki theatre.
The relationship between East and West is very contentious here. We see as Butterfly becomes more Americanised, it leads to her own destruction. She is only 15 when the opera starts. She waits three years for his return and as her famous aria depicts, Un Bel Di or One Fine Day, he does returns to her with tragic consequences.
The first act contains varying types of Japanese inspired music by Puccini. But it loosens as we go into the second act. Surprisingly, The Star Spangled Banner dives in and out of the score as well. I wonder what Americans would have thought of that at the premier in Washington D.C. (the opera being sung entirely in English as well).
The history of Japan does conjure up many emotions. The audience sees a model set of Nagasaki, the setting of the opera, at the front of the stage. I can't help think of the atomic bomb. They have after all, never apologised for the events of the Second World War. It's not just Pearl Harbour but also the appalling and sickening things done to the Chinese at that time...
I didn't want this to get political or culture bashing. But the idea of killing one's self because of shame or dishonour seems like a very silly thing indeed. Why would you want to end your life because of that? That's the one time you stand tall and carry on with your life. A life is not so throwaway like that. Butterfly's most scared possession is that of her father's dagger, with which he committed hara-kiri, or self-stabbing, by order of the Mikado. We westerners could perhaps see this as an equivalent of a saint's relic.
Cheryl Barker plays Madam Butterfly. It seems to be her bread and butter. I have her on CD signing the role in English. She plays her with a certain innocence, insecurity and naivety. Gwyn Hughes Jones is a firm Pinkerton. I'm pretty sure I saw him the first time I saw this some years ago. His tenor is suited very well in this role. As he took his bow at the end, he was greeted with mock booing. I joined with some hissing as well, just for good measure. He would be great as Rodolfo, Cavaradossi and CalÃ f in the other famous Puccini operas. I'm sure he has played these roles already and would be great to hear him do these.
Hats off as well to Claire Bradshaw as the maid Suzuki. The character it would seem, carries the story in her loyal obedience for Butterfly. She may not always have faith that he will return, but remains at the house making sure her mistress is safe, even if they are slowly becoming poor. Towards the end this is a very sad experience. I didn't think I would cry, but at the end I was close to bawling, as other were verging on. It's the usual 'bring tissues' scenario.
But does this production show its age? Only in the netting, which I remarked last time I saw it, looked drab and in dire need of replacing. It's to give the appearance of many cherry blossoms leaning over the house. One little bit of the house juts out onto the front stage and adds an extra dimension to the set, as Madam Butterfly observes the ships in the harbour here with her telescope. Other characters use it sometimes as a type of balcony. But apart from the netting, the set is as impressive and efficient you could ever see at the opera.
The sliding doors are a wonderful touch. Having lived in a bedroom with huge sliding mirrors for most of my life, the idea of sliding doors is not to far of a stretch for me. They look a breeze to use. Just don't carelessly walk threw them, tearing them in half, like Homer in The Simpsons did in a visit to Japan.
As WNO listed what would feature in the next few seasons recently (it looks like a fantastic selection) we see Madam Lescaut, another of Puccini's operas will be staged, as well as a revival of Tosca. Lescaut is not preformed as much as Madam Butterfly but is not an obscurity like some of his lesser-known operas early in his career. Having never seen it, I look forward to a breather from the 'great Puccini four' that people flock to see in opera houses everywhere. WNO have also had a large revamp in designs on the website and their logo. I will discuss this in another article.
Lastly, I do wonder when this production will bow out for one last time. Its strength seems to be its replay value, as has been proven. As the new La BohÃ©me proved, a new production is not necessarily a hit on all terms. It can leave you pining for the old production.
If this production went, it would be greatly missed...