Madam Butterfly – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre
By Charlotte Oliver, March 2020
OperaUpClose, the company whose ambition is ‘to bring the highest quality opera to diverse audiences… by refreshing and renewing the operatic canon for the 21st century’, are currently touring their new version of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.
This is the heart-breaking story of a young geisha (Cio Cio San, also known as Madam Butterfly) who falls in love with an American naval officer (Pinkerton) with ultimately tragic consequences, and raises themes of love and loss, sexual exploitation, cultural conflict and self-deception. Ruth Chan has created a new orchestration for a four-piece ensemble and Poppy Burton-Morgan has written an English libretto, both of which enable the production to reach new venues and audiences.
The set is a simple square building, with a roof terrace providing a further level for the action. The building is shabby and bleak, the only colour provided by pornographic posters of women plastered onto the bare walls. In the second and third acts, this becomes Cio Cio San’s home and the posters are changed to Audrey Hepburn and Minnie Mouse, icons of the American Dream to which she is clinging so hopelessly. The claustrophobia of this small living space adds to the feeling of her entrapment by society in her situation as a woman, wife and mother.
The production is set in the eighties and the jarring juxtaposition of traditional Japanese costumes against the decade’s brash colours and shapes underlines the clash of culture between the American men and the Japanese women. This opposition can be seen from the moment the women make their first entrance, when the ethereal vocal harmonies and formalised movements contrast with the lascivious looks and relaxed manners of Pinkerton and Gordon, the marriage broker. This conflict creates a deeply uncomfortable atmosphere that sits alongside the sense of impending doom and underscores the entire show, making for an intense audience experience.
Karlene Moreno-Hayworth is otherworldly in the title role. Her tiny frame, huge voice and traditional Japanese make-up exaggerate her dramatic performance, sitting slightly unnervingly with the lower-key approach taken by those playing the American men. Her heightened playing however becomes more understandable in subsequent acts as we see her increasingly manic desperation for Pinkerton’s return. Her sister, Suzuki, provides one of the few truly loving relationships in the piece and Jane Monari’s performance is outstanding.
“Privilege to experience”
The thorny problem of how to represent the three year-old child is tackled boldly in this production, using a puppet with a black void for his face. Michael Chun Ting Lam’s puppetry is extremely well-observed, earning an appreciative response from the audience, but the use of darkness instead of a face was, unfortunately, a barrier to my emotional involvement in the action.
The stripped-back orchestration fitted the space well and adds freshness to the well-known music, and the inclusion of some traditional Japanese instruments provided a sense of the place and of the traditions that the female characters were restricted by.
The other standout performance came from Jan Capinski as Sharpless, the US Consul who shows a level of concern for Madam Butterfly that we don’t see from the other men. Capinski’s voice is deep and effortless, and somehow befitting of such a character.
This was definitely opera ‘up close’ and it was a privilege to experience the power of their voices in such intimate proximity. I applaud OperaUpClose’s ambition and admire the courage of their thought-provoking artistic choices. I very much look forward to seeing what they do next.