Ellen Kent’s take on Madama Butterfly graced the Manchester Opera House stage last week, in what was the first performance of Kent’s 2023 tour. Puccini’s iconic melodies coupled with the idyllic Japanese set design made it an authentic rendition of the opera. The opera featured the Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv, with international soloists, acclaimed chorus, and full orchestra.
Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly first premiered in Milan in 1904 and has seen countless interpretations and productions in the century since its inception. Although the number of acts varies, the sordid themes of sex, betrayal, and suicide remain consistent across performances.
An American naval officer (Pinkerton) weds an impressionable 15-year-old girl in her native Japan. After he inevitably leaves and remarries in America, the girl faces emotional anguish while caring for Pinkerton’s child, whose conception he was unaware of.
Elena Dee’s portrayal of tragic heroine Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly) was breathtaking, as her high notes pierced the air, never faltering, never leaving room for boredom. Dee was powerful, convincing, and emotive. Opposite her, Vitalii Liskovetskyi captured a timeless villain.
His role as Lieutenant Pinkerton helped secure sympathy for his jilted Madama, and the crowd booed as he took his final bow. His tenor worked beautifully alongside Dee’s soprano prowess. They shared the stage with Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Natalia Matveeva as Suzuki (Madama Butterfly’s maid), Romanian tenor Sorin Lupu as the Bonze, and renowned Ukrainian baritone Olexandr Forkushak as the US consul at Nagasaki.
Although it is the sixth most performed opera in the world and has immortalized Puccini’s music, Madama Butterfly has been criticized by some for its reductive orientalism and for portraying Japanese culture from a Western perspective. It has also been accused of touting “yellowface”, in that the Japanese characters are often portrayed by white performers. When Arthur Golden penned Memoirs of a Geisha, he was contemporizing the brazen need for white men to portray Japanese women in their works. And while reflections on cultural appropriation were scarce in 1904, modern audiences (and in Golden’s case, readers) are shrouding works with cultural controversy.
Madama Butterfly, with its Japanese characters singing arias in Italian, is no exception to this scrutiny. Puccini based the opera on a short story by John Luther Long, who based his story on a novel by Pierre Loti. This means our Japanese heroine was conceived by a string of White men, which makes the skepticism surrounding the show understandable.
Ellen Kent’s troupe might have defied the show’s reputation by starring a Korean soprano, but perhaps operas like these need to find a way to adapt to modern sensibilities.
Ultimately, this production was beautifully executed. The case against Madama Butterfly speaks to greater systemic problems within opera, but if Ellen Kent’s version existed in a vacuum, the music and production value were stunning. It was also an opportunity to support Ukrainian performers, and the cast performed the Ukrainian national anthem in an operatic style at the end of the performance.
Ellen Kent is touring the UK with three operas (Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s La Boheme, and Verdi’s Aida) until May 8. The three operas were performed over consecutive nights at Manchester Opera House, beginning with Madama Butterfly. Most cities are only getting two operas; we feel very fortunate to have gotten to cover all three of them in Manchester. Be sure to check out our reviews of the other two operas. Ellen Kent will return to Manchester in 2024.