Madame Butterfly – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre
by Matt Callard, February 2012
It is a decade old now, David Nixon’s ethereal, wordless ballet adaptation of the play that inspired Puccini’s famous oriental opera. But the production’s simple, delicate beauty remains undiminished. Improved even perhaps, by subtle embellishments and a cast honed to near perfection.
Madame Butterfly, whatever the medium, hinges on the threefold clash between culture, love and religion. It is this clash that provides the gossamer geisha delicacy of much of the ballet work on show here the breadth to branch out into dynamism, daring and, during one umbrella twirling celebration, even a sort of show dance.
Keiko Amemori in the title role might lack some of Butterfly’s required youth. But she still delivers the right blend of innocence, joy and, later, crucially, shame and betrayal. Her courtship dance with the American navy cadet, Pinkerton, remains a thing of exquisite beauty. Amemori airborne and feather-light almost throughout. Her tender, elongated lines enhanced by some astonishing slow-motion choreography. You can see Butterfly’s coyness slowly peel away as the cadet’s western brashness wins her over. Later, when cherry blossoms fall down on a spiralling, love-struck Butterfly, it’s hard not to melt.
Some scenes play out behind a see-through curtain, adding a sort of misty oriental otherness to the staging. The costumes are altogether wonderful – all angular and sharp for the men’s wedding dance, all shimmy and movement for Butterfly’s dream images. The score too, a condensed orchestral transcription of the opera, adds traditional eastern music and a haunting Japanese aria to a dramatic, tense, blood-red-lit final scene. The Northern Ballet Sinfonia are, naturally, magnificent throughout.
The director is even brave enough to cast little Courtney Tipple as Butterfly and Pinkerton’s child. Despite her age remaining a mystery. Although she must be all of two-and-a-half years old if she’s a day. Her behaviour (surely we can only call it that at this early stage!) is impeccable. It should not be underestimated that one careless gesture by the youngster at the audience and the fourth wall would crumble.
I’m still uneasy about the morality at work in the play. But much of the ballet’s long-lasting appeal relies on the simple storytelling and the bold, primary ritual of courtship, love, loss, revenge. It’s just I’d rather the revenge was a slap to the spineless Pinkerton’s mush rather than a dignity-restoring spot of seppuku.
Whatever the morals, Madame Butterfly is ballet for everybody. Accessible, understandable and, ultimately, wonderful.
All pictures: Linda Rich