All the beauty of Japan was made real on stage in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Manchester Opera House, says Annabel Cartwright
It is 1904 in Nagasaki, Japan, and two lovers prepare for their wedding. Their fate, however, seems bleak from the outset. Japanese girl Cio-Cio-San has been fooled by American Lieutenant F. B. Pinkerton into marriage. He considers their union to be temporary and intends to leave Cio-Cio-San when he is able to find a suitable wife in America. On the day of her wedding, Cio-Cio-San is renounced by friends and family due to her rejection of traditional Japanese values.
She is left alone in the world except for her new husband and her maid, Suzuki. In Act Two of the opera, the audience finds Cio-Cio-San having been abandoned by her husband, and caring for their three year old son. She dreams of Pinkerton’s return, and the happy life they will share together.
Unfortunately, the reunion of the couple does not go as Cio-Cio-San had hoped. Pinkerton has since remarried, and brings his new wife with him in order to claim his son, and take him back to America. Pinkerton’s return brings the opera to a close, with tragic consequences for Cio-Cio-San.
Ellen Kent’s touring production of Puccini’s masterpiece brings to life the timeless tale of Madama Butterfly with true feeling. The recurrent challenge of staging a classic opera, or any well-known theatrical piece, lies in the audience’s capacity to become emotionally hardened to a familiar story.
New productions of old classics must find ways in which to remain relevant, in order to have a real impact upon audiences. Whilst Kent’s production remains relatively traditional in style and setting; the design, musical performances and direction succeed in powerfully bringing all the tragedy and emotion of Cio-Cio-San’s story to a modern audience.
First and foremost, commendation must be given to the leading performers.
The performances of Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki and Pinkerton were thoughtful, tremendously emotional and musically stunning. The second greatest achievement of this production was that of the visual designers. The set and costumes were intricate and magnificent to behold. All the beauty of Japan was made real on stage, which added to the overall exquisite tragedy of the performance.
Underpinning the quality of the performance on the whole, however, was the orchestra of the National Opera & Ballet Theatre of Moldova, conducted by Nicolae Dohotaru. The performance of the instrumentalists was sensitive and full of feeling, bolstering the vocal performances whilst wielding their own independent command over the audience’s emotions.
The only minor failing of the production was the quality of acting displayed by the vocal chorus. Whilst the extremely skilled vocalists provided an excellent performance musically, they appeared to be uninterested and unengaged in the action being presented on stage. Alongside being rather unconvincing as supporting characters within the narrative, a few small choreography and cue mistakes were noticeable to discerning audience members.
Definitely a must-see, Ellen Kent’s production succeeds in bringing one of Puccini’s most popular works to audiences with resounding skill, emotion and vibrancy.