Madame Butterfly enjoys extraordinary popularity today: even people who have never been to an opera in their lives could probably recognise its title. But why? Despite its surface familiarity, it’s a dark, upsetting piece, entirely devoid of romance, brimful of callous manipulation. Above all, its score is a far more challenging, experimental listen than we might expect (or remember). Its plot is simple, more bare scenario than narrative; the actions it witnesses are deeply offensive; its emotions are tidal. Telling the story of a naïve teenage girl tricked into a sexual liaison which she believes to be legitimate, watching her being castigated and rejected by her family and community, then abandoned and shamed by her lover until finally suicide becomes her only honourable option, the parallels with the trajectory of modern sexual slavery feel unnervingly close. In a post-colonial age, Butterfly is, if anything, even harder to watch: and the saddest thing of all is that this story doesn’t yet feel like an historical anachronism. Pinkerton and his ilk are still very much with us. Madame Butterfly may be a famous ‘weepie’, but these days I find I do all my weeping at the beginning and in the middle: once we get to the Humming Chorus, rage takes over, and Butterfly’s suicide comes as a glorious relief. Puccini points us this way from the start, with the avuncular and vacillating Sharpless (portrayed with conspicuous intelligence here by Philip Smith, radiating frustrated compassion) telling Pinkerton repeatedly that what he is doing is wrong, and will result in terrible suffering for Butterfly. Pinkerton, however, is too intoxicated with his own machismo and power to listen or care; his eventual regret, far too late, is despicably spineless, the flipside of a male arrogance which brooks no opposition to its desires, but is pathetically unable to cope with its simplest emotional consequences.
For Iford Arts’ final performance at Iford Manor (at least for a while, as the historic Cloister is urgently in need of exploratory structural work), Bruno Ravella has created a reverently traditional Madame Butterfly which achieves raw intimacy, expressing rather than reworking Puccini’s challenging vision of lust, selfishness and defiant self-sacrifice. Flavio Graff’s recognisably Japanese design raises much of the stage to the level of Iford’s central well, creating a wider playing space without a central pivot. An open-sided wooden cube suggests a Japanese house, its folding screens imaginary, its lack of walls contributing to the opera’s exposed, vulnerable atmosphere. In this fragile box, which Pinkerton perceives as “a house of cards… a piece of origami!” in Amanda Holden’s English translation, there is nothing to protect Butterfly from her brief, deluded life and heartbroken, desperate death.
Chinese soprano He Wu made a truly exceptional Butterfly. Wu’s brilliant, clear and expressive voice did justice to all Puccini’s challenges, while her superbly poised acting balanced the traditional manners of the Geisha with the natural excitement of an impetuously passionate teenager. Crucially, Wu is not only able to still look the right age for the part, but showed a real transition from the 15-year-old infatuated, deluded Butterfly of Act 1 to the determined 18 year old single mother filled with proud, steely resolve in Act 3: a memorably polished, wonderfully expressive, thoroughly absorbing portrayal. Anthony Flaum was an ideal Pinkerton, exuding charisma with film-star good looks in his crisp naval uniform, but his blank responses to emotional questions implying a whistling void where his conscience ought to have been. Pinkerton’s appalling manners to his Japanese hosts (pulling a face as he sniffed proferred sake) were an essay in colonial arrogance. Flaum’s ebullient, flexible tenor felt just right for Pinkerton’s cocksure vocal presence; the emotional coward successfully delivered on stage with all his self-justifying narcissism intact.
Sandra Porter’s trembling Suzuki was beautifully observed, moving from absolute humility to refreshing directness as she finally told Pinkerton what she thought of him as the plan to take Butterfly’s son to America became clear. Simon Gfeller’s unctuous and irrepressible Goro was spot on, Gfeller’s wonderfully bright and immediate tenor a constant delight. Hanna Liisa Kirchin was a genuinely shocked, remorseful Kate Pinkerton. Bass-baritone Freddie Tong made an unmistakable mark as the Bonze, exploding into the wedding scene with righteous fury.
There were two problems with this otherwise elegant and deeply moving account. Puccini’s score, in a new orchestration by Francis Griffin brought to vivid life by CHROMA, conducted by Thomas Blunt, still feels several notches too big for Iford’s delicate cloister. Too often, the orchestra’s sound dominated the vocal line and drowned out singers, something which I’ve rarely (if ever) noticed being a problem at Iford before. With such fine vocal performances on offer, this was frustrating. Meanwhile, moments of multiple sung lines, where several characters speak, argue or reflect simultaneously, were extremely difficult to comprehend in the round: no matter how good anyone’s intonation was, words just became a blur. It is fascinating to see Butterfly’s strengths and weaknesses equally magnified on this intimate scale: the tragic power of the manifest injustices suffered by Butterfly is inescapable, but in those all-important moments of group tension, sense can be derailed or even lost without the scope of a larger stage. It’s ironic that an opera we often perceive as fragile or delicate is in fact much more of a musical bruiser than you might expect, and consequently often finds itself a bit too big for this unique space. However, the sheer familiarity and simplicity of the story mean that these problems are just setbacks, not catastrophes, for an otherwise fine production: Ravella delivers Puccini’s overall vision with conscious, compelling power.
Butterfly refused to live in Pinkerton’s morally degraded, hypocritical and self-serving world: at last, in the era of #metoo, women all over the world are starting to refuse likewise.
- Rating: Four
- At Iford until 4 August: details here (all performances sold out, but returns may be available)