I had seen this Madame Butterfly 2 years ago in gestation as part of the autumn repertory and last night Puccini’s masterpiece made a powerful impression as the story is as magnificent as the music despite some tinkering by director Annilese Mackinnon.
I imagine most readers know the story – originally a play that Puccini saw in London – of an American naval officer that takes a child bride in Nagasaki for his own pleasure and is wholly insensitive to her love for him and personal aspirations. She waits 3 years for his return, now with his son called Sorrow and when he turns up it is with the American bride that he intended to marry all along. The heroine Cio-Cio San takes her life.
The production is set in the 1950s in period dress of that time and to reflect the then contemporary GI bride practice. Whilst the director, in her programme notes, finds it necessary to explain the cultural implications to the modern audience she herself seems unaware that the action is taking place within 5 years of the American nuclear bomb.
Puccini ‘got’ the issue of cultural clash, by interweaving the Stars and Stripes with Japanese melody, and so does the modern audience, which surely appreciates its relevance today with males taking a Thai bride home.
When first performed in February 1904 at La Scala Milan the audience clearly did not get it though as there was cat-calling and booing. This may have been caused by a plant by a rival as that practice was known in opera at that time known for the dark arts and with many rivals, not least the ageing maestro Verdi around.
Puccini took the criticism to heart, rewrote the Opera – removing much of the second act – which is now compressed into the third. This provides an imbalance as the first act lasts 45 minutes, if that, and the second after the long interval 90 minutes.
Her rendition of the opera’s most memorable aria Un bel di vedremo (“One Fine Day”) brought spontaneous clapping. Though the story may be simple – possibly even hackneyed as it bears more than passing resemblance to Miss Saigon – there are nuances she certainly does not miss.
After 3 years Madam Butterfly emerges from a child bride aged 15 to a mature mother loving of her son and it is more of tragedy that her suicide destroyed the emotional protection of Sorrow who is given to his new American parent than the act itself. One of the most moving scenes is Sorrow looking out to sea dressed in his sailor’s outfit to the accompaniment of the London Philharmonic ably conducted by Omar Meir Wellber. Joshua Guerrero is a commanding Pinkerton, perhaps more confident in his singing as tenor than in his acting, whilst Elizabeth de Shong as a steadfast friend and companion Suzuki gives a fine performance.
One of the advantages of live performance is gauging the audience reaction. Captain Pinkerton was booed at the curtain call not for his performance but for who he was and what he did which gave the evening a panto feel.
Clearly Miss Mackinnon s message went straight over the head of one diner on the next table to me in the Nether Wallop Restaurant who was boring the whole table with lengthy stories about his golf rounds.
Country House Opera now has Garsington Hall ss well as the Grange so Glyndebourne has to be on its toes as it has no public funding and its core audience is an ageing one. Its glorious gardens and journey through beautiful Sussex country side will ensure it’s pre-eminence as much as production values which resolve many of the problems in the gestation period.