Friday, 14 April 2017

'Madama Butterfly' at the Royal Opera House

The latest operatic blockbuster at the Royal Opera House is the revival of Puccini's 'Madama Butterfly', an opera that he was inspired to write after seeing the original play on which it's based  performed at the Duke of York's Theatre on St Martin's Lane, half a mile away from Covent Garden. I'm still easing my way slowly into opera so am sticking to the 'biggies' of the genre and you don't get much bigger than 'Butterfly'. The closest I've ever come to it is Malcolm McLaren's record 'Fans' so I had little idea of what to expect and everything to learn. I saw the 408th performance at the Royal Opera House and this evening it was broadcast to cinemas around the world.

It's the tale of Cio-Cio-San's marriage to Lieutenant Pinkerton in Japan in the 19th Century and what happens next. Cio-Cio San is affectionately known as Butterfly, a young woman of 15 years old who has fallen on hard times due to the suicide of her father. She believes her marriage to the American Pinkerton to be a love-match but he sees it as a contract that can be terminated at a word. She gives up everything for him and even converse to Christianity for him, to better fit in with her idea of what an American would do and is. When her family finds out that she has converted she is cast out and alone in the world with her love of Pinkerton and her loyal handmaid, Suzuki.

The second half opens with Butterfly having been abandoned by Pinkerton after a few months and three years have passed since he sailed away. She trusts to his promises to return when the robins nest but Suzuki is less sure and the marriage-broker is already trying to have her wed a rich Japanese man. Butterfly will have none of it since she believes love is true and Pinkerton will return to meet their blond-haired son. Poor Butterfly is, of course, deluded, since Pinkerton is bringing his white, American wife and has ho intention of rejoining Butterfly. When he finds out about his son he is full of remorse and wants to take him back to America but can't see Butterfly so leaves that to his wife. Butterfly agrees that it'll be best for her son and then takes the ritual knife she inherited from her father and ends it all at the age of 18.  Poor Butterfly.

The entire opera takes place in one large room in Japanese style, with sliding doors to show gardens and roads but essentially everything happens in the same room. The lighting subtly changes the mood and moves from morning night and back to morning, particularly as Butterfly waits for Pinkerton. The music is lush and carries you away but, as usual, I get carried along by the characters. Pinkerton is a cad who should be horse-whipped and his friend, the Consul who he entrusts with important messages, is weak. Once again, it is the women who are strong in opera. Cio-Cio-San kills herself for love with a dagger through her heart and loyal Suzuki stays with her to the end while the anonymous Kate Pinkerton is left by her coward of a husband to pick up the pieces at the end. Men are such shits aren't we?

Cowardly Pinkerton was played by Marcelo Puente and the weak consul was played by Scott Hendricks. Ermonela Jaho played Cio-Cio-San/Butterfly and Elizabeth Deshong played Suzuki (who had, I thought, a tremendous voice and great delivery). Well done all and I heartily approved of the faint boos that greeted Puente/Pinkerton when he came on for his bows at the end.

I can't help but think that the brave Tosca would've killed Pinkerton herself before committing suicide. Butterfly, please take note for next time.

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