Now in its second outing since its debut in 2007, Opera North’s Madama Butterfly reached Nottingham last night on a wave of critical success. Tim Albery’s direction is rich with cultural and aesthetic nuances, which, though cerebrally satisfying jar with the intuitive beauty of Puccini’s masterpiece.
Madama Butterfly is a simple story of love, longing, and loss in fin-de-ciecle Japan. The simplicity of the plot is appeased by the intricacy of the music, and Opera North’s production, conducted by Wyn Davies, misses none of the colour of Puccini’s original score. Davies’ exuberance and experience makes for a fearless orchestral performance throughout; which, although a joy during instrumental pieces does sometimes come close to overwhelming the lead voices. The highlight of the production is as such the Humming Chorus, which after an hour of competition between voice and orchestra strikes a restful balance between off-stage humming and melody. As the chorus builds from frivolous beginnings to its mournful conclusion, this new found synergy is particularly pertinent; as Butterfly waits for Pinkerton’s return, the orchestra and audience are joined together momentarily in vigil.
The resonance of the Humming Chorus is facilitated by the depth and intelligence of the staging, which through simplicity of design is able to draw out the libretto’s most powerful motifs and add the much needed third dimension to the opera, both figuratively and literally. Using movable screens throughout not only maintains the cultural integrity of the opera but creates a series of framed tableaux, like wood-block prints, they punctuate the otherwise frantic action with moments for reflection.
Western familiarity with this kind of image however, highlights one of the more uncomfortable elements of the production, Pinkerton’s casual Orientalism; the small scale expression of the late 19th century Imperialism in his destructive fascination with Japanese culture. Rafael Rojas’ ignorance of his new bride’s culture provides much of the humour in the opera, and his performance should be praised for its ready buffoonery, reversing the object of mirth from Shinto customs to his own clumsy understanding. There seem to be marked attempts to draw out the continuing relevance of this tension in the modern world, particularly in the steady westernisation of the costumes between Acts One and Two. Daniel Norman’s brilliantly licentious marriage broker Goro begins in a kimono but after three years looks more like a Chicago gangster, just as Butterfly’s wedding robes are cast off for an ill-fitting stepford-wives dress and wobbly heels. Equally, Goro’s stack of head shots of adolescent girls equally buys ominously into the Opera’s Thai-bride connotations. Still there is an inconsistency of context that undermines this attention to detail. The echoes of social networking in Goro’s office are distinctly contemporary, whereas the costumes move between the 1920s and 1940s, and still the backdrop is more traditional 19th century style. Any one of these interpretations would be worth exploring, but together they lose poignancy overall.
Nonetheless, the music itself is timeless and the lead performances fight valiantly against the soaring orchestra and the barrage of cultural messages. In the title role, Ann Sophie Duprel’s tremulous vibrato befits Butterfly’s characteristic fragility and youth throughout. Her performance is also full of tension and anxiety, and her physical and verbal flitting draws out the other side of her namesake: as well as being a fragile butterfly, Cio-Cio San is a teenager, capable of mood swings and overreactions. While this at times forms a pertinent juxtaposition to Butterfly’s relentless faith in Pinkerton, it also means that some of this resoluteness, and thus the power of Butterfly’s Act Two is lost in the giddiness of her youthful portrayal. Opera North’s Butterfly is undoubtedly stunning; musically and visually it has moments of devastating beauty. Still they are fragmented by an onslaught of symbols and semiotics that ultimately limit’s the audience to an intellectual rather than emotional response.