Madama Butterfly is a staple of the operatic repertoire around the world, so it is hard to believe that the original two-act version was so poorly received at its premiere in 1904 at La Scala in Milan. Puccini rewrote it in three acts to great success before reverting to the two-act formula that we see performed today.
It begins with marriage broker Goro (Ruslan Pacatovici) showing US naval lieutenant Pinkerton (tenor Giorgio Meladze) round the home he will share with his Butterfly bride-to-be. Pinkerton is passionate to possess her even if he crushes her fragile wings, whilst American Consul Sharpless (baritone Iurie Gisca) warns him of the tragic consequences his game could have. The Butterfly duly lands in the form of young Japanese girl Cio-Cio-San (soprano Maria HeeJung Kim) supported by maid Suzuki (mezzo-soprano Zarui Vardanean), and they are married by the Commissioner (Tudor Donos). She is willing to sacrifice her roots and traditions to love him, a point made clear when she is disowned by her uncle, a Bonze (bass Vadim Chernigovskiy). Her butterfly silhouette as she undresses is framed by her fear of being pinned to a board, never to escape. The act-closing long love duet is exquisite.
The second act finds Cio-Cio San living with Suzuki but almost destitute: Pinkerton had left the country promising to return within a year but three years on is still not back. She gazes out to the sea and dreams of the day they will be reunited. Sharpless arrives with a letter confirming the imminent arrival of an American ship but doesn’t have the heart to tell her Pinkerton has remarried, especially when she introduces him to Sorrow (Cillian McIlroy), her and Pinkerton’s son. He encourages her to marry Prince Yamadori (Gheorghe Barbanoi), a willing suitor, but she has eschewed her native culture for American values and any doubts are wiped away by the arrival of the ship.
Cio-Cio-San waits expectantly for Pinkerton’s return until she retires exhausted. Sharpless and Pinkerton duly arrive with Pinkerton’s wife, Kate (Myroslava Shvakh-Pekar), left waiting in the garden. As they ask Suzuki to explain to Cio-Cio-San that Pinkerton wishes to take away the child, Cio-Cio-San appears full of joy but seeing Suzuki’s solemn face realises the true intentions of his visit. It is a tale that can now only end tragically.
There were strong performances from all the cast. HeeJung Kim has a beautiful voice – I adored ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ - that complements her appropriately subtle performance, with Vardanean providing fine support. Gisca’s Sharpless conveys sympathy and understanding at every turn, whilst Meladze is a powerful coward and is rightfully booed at the curtain call before being applauded for his performance. The live orchestra, conducted by Vasyl Vasylenko, performed superbly throughout. Special thanks to Stagecoach Arts Wirral and Liverpool for providing students.
The final mention goes to Director and Producer Ellen Kent: the set is remarkable for its simplicity and colour in its reflection of late 19th Century Japan – a paper house with sliding doors set in an orderly and variegated garden complete with running water features. Whilst this scene doesn’t change the mood most certainly does, perfectly captured through the lighting and orchestral transitions, most notably in the longer second act as we progress from afternoon to evening to night before the dawn heralds…well, you’ll see in a production that sensitively offers love, hope, and opportunity in equal measure before they are inevitably dashed in this moving production.
Madama Butterfly is touring throughout the UK and Ireland with full details available at www.ellenkent.com
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 3rd March 2018
North West End Rating: ★★★★★