Madama Butterfly – Review – Hull New Theatre
By Karl Hornsey, March 2018
There’s a conflict when watching Madama Butterfly that is hard to square. When boiled down to its most basic plot points, in all honesty, very little happens. Man falls in love with woman (or in this case 15-year-old girl), marries her, leaves her pregnant with the promise of his return, but then remarries and comes back three years later wanting to take their son back to a foreign land. And that is pretty much it.
Therefore it is a testament to the genius of composer Giacomo Puccini and anyone who has since adapted the opera that it is a truly intoxicating, harrowing and deeply emotional story played out over two hours or so. Thus was the case with this Ellen Kent production at Hull New Theatre, played to a packed house and delivering a heartrending second act that left the audience emotionally spent.
Having seen Miss Saigon on the stage in the West End, I was keen to see the opera from which the story originated. I hugely enjoyed the former, which is largely based on the latter, simply moved from early 20th century Japan to post-war Vietnam, but keeping the same premise of a brief love affair doomed to tragedy. I’m delighted to say this lived up to my expectations, and then exceeded them.
The first act is one of hope. In fact Madama Butterfly, played by South Korean soprano Maria HeeJung Kim to phenomenal effect, remains a hopeful figure for the majority of the story, which only adds to the sense of tragedy at the end. The hope only exaggerates the despair.
Butterfly is to be married to American Navy lieutenant BF Pinkerton (tenor Giorgio Meladze), but their reasons for marriage are in complete contrast. To her, he is to be the love of her life, to be served and obeyed forever, while to him, it’s a fleeting arrangement, and one which sets the scene for everything that follows.
The wedding takes place at Butterfly’s house near Nagasaki – in fact the entire opera is staged in just one location – and Pinkerton, despite the urgings of the eminently sensible US consul Sharpless, takes the arrangement lightly. This first act sets the scene for all that follows, and even through the joy of the occasion, the foreboding of tragedy is always evident.
The second act, quite honestly, is an emotional rollercoaster for the entirety of its 75 minutes and one that left us drained by the end. Three years have passed since Pinkerton departed, promising his return, and for each day of his absence, Butterfly has awaited his ship, staring into the distance in the hope of him sailing in.
Butterfly’s maid Suzuki tries to keep her grounded and prepare her for the inevitable, and it is at this point that HeeJung Kim really cranks up the emotional torment with the most famous aria of the opera, ‘One Fine Day’, as she envisages his return. Kim’s performance is completely engrossing, but the length of time before Pinkerton finally appears, is quite agonising, knowing as we do that tragedy is set to ensue.
Eventually, Pinkerton does arrive, having been told by Sharpless of his son’s existence, but his return is simply so that he can take his son back to America with his new wife, whose presence does little to ease the angst. Once Pinkerton arrives at Butterfly’s house, his role as the villain of the piece is complete, as he shirks his duties and does a flit, revealing himself to be a complete coward as well as a cad, leaving the logistics to the stoical Sharpless (and leading to a hearty and much-deserved round of boos from the audience at the end).
The length taken to build up to the moment when Butterfly has to give up her child, and the sheer intensity of Kim’s performance makes this a hard, but worthwhile watch. It really is heartbreaking, and Butterfly, steeped in the words of her father in how to live and die in honour, takes her own life, leaving her child (played by the incredible Elicia Bell) to be taken away for a new life.
Judging by the sniffling and snobbing emanating from the audience, the emotional gravitas certainly came across as intended, and while this isn’t an easy watch by any means, it’s one I would recommend to anyone.