Madam Butterfly – Puccini – WNO @ Birmingham Hippodrome, 5***** David H & Paul J Gray

Birmingham-Hippodrome

Madam Butterfly, till 22 October 2021 and touring

5*****

Birmingham Hippodrome – 0844 338 500

www.birminghamhippodrome.com

 Reviewer – David & Paul J Gray – 23 OCTOBER 2021

 @reviewsgate

www.reviewsgate.com

A fresh, new, modern take on a well-loved classic

An opera that deals with colonialism, the commoditisation of women and the sexual exploitation of a 15-year-old girl presents challenges and opportunities for modern-day opera staging.  In WNO’s new production of Madam Butterfly director, Lindy Hume, addresses the first of these challenges by moving the opera out of a traditional Japanese setting and placing it in a non-specific milieu – a corporate world of uniformity, artificiality and regimentation.

Isabella Bywater’s clean uncluttered design, free from sentimental faux japonaiserie, confronts the audience with the unflinching brutality of the story.  At the centre of an otherwise bare set, a (superb) rotating house offers a constantly shifting perspective.  At first glance, the house appears to be a modernist dream home.  However, the prominent, elevated bedroom is a transparent glass box which places Butterfly on display and presents her as a prize to be objectified.

The role of women in this society is clear:  Butterfly’s entourage of bridesmaids are identical.  They move, almost robotically, as one – objects to be used and abandoned by men at will.  This role is made so utterly transparent, one cannot but wonder how Butterfly remains so naïve.   However, this is a question that does not undermine the truth of her character, but instead brilliantly highlights the psychological conundrum at the heart of the opera.  As she clings to an idealised vision of her marriage, and refuses to recognise the reality of her abandonment, how much does Butterfly actually know about her predicament?  Soprano, Alexia Voulgaridou, gives a rich characterisation that fully explores this ambiguity. Utterly outstanding.

In Act I, her Butterfly is fresh and idealistic.  But at the start of Act II, she has been jaded by years of grief and hardship.  Now we see the pokey, squalid rooms on the ground floor of the house not seen in the more idealised set for Act I.  The would-be dream home has become something of a fortress – and a prison.  The character is, initially, fragile; diminished by her pain.  However, as events unfold, Voulgaridou allows Butterfly to grow and develop real vocal steel and presence so that, by the end, her death is an act of strength: a choice; the first choice she has made that has been entirely hers. Hat’s off to this astonishing actor-singer, and to the extraordinary vision of this production’s designer, director & producer.

The rest of the cast of principals also give us rounded and developing characterisations. Tenor, Leonardo Caimi, sings Pinkerton with a combination of warmth and swaggering virility, presenting us with a man who has successful compartmentalised his life and his feelings.  Mark Stone’s Sharpless struggles to reconcile his friendship with his distaste for the actions of his friend.  Anna Harvey brings great vocal warmth and emotional depth to the role of Suzuki. One felt totally immersed in all of this.

The playing from the pit is lush and nuanced,  Carlo Rizzi keeps the tempos brink.  His reading is emotionally rich, yet without indulgence, and he conjures up a fine interpretation & performance from his superb band.

This is an imaginative, thoughtful, well-crafted, and beautifully performed production which does that rare and wonderful thing of enabling the audience to see a well-known work as if for the first time with fresh eyes and ears.

CAST & CREATIVES

Pinkerton – Leonardo Caimi

Goro – Tom Randle

Suzuki – Anna Harvey

Sharpless – Mark Stone

Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) – Alexia Voulgaridou

The Bonze – Keel Watson

Prince Yamadori – Neil Balfour

Cousin – Meriel Andrew

Mother – Monika Sawa

Uncle Yakuside – George Newton-Fitzgerald

Aunt – Carolyn Jackson

Imperial Commissioner – Julian Boyce

Official Registrar – Jack O’Kelly

Kate Pinkerton – Sian Meinir

Bodyguards – Jenni Duffy, Emma Jason

Butterfly’s Child – Zoe Broido-Green, Sabrina Rose Ruscoe

The WNO Chorus & Orchestra

Conductor – Carlo Rizzi

Composer – Giacomo Puccini

Libretto – Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica

Director – Lindy Hume

Designer – Isabella Bywater

Lighting Designer – Elanor Higgins

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