Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Madama Butterfly

Giacosa & Illica, Puccini
Opera North
The Lowry
06 March 2018 to 08 March 2018

A red carpet was introduced at The Lowry for Opera North’s revival of Madama Butterfly. It gave a welcome glamorous touch to the evening in what was the opening night of their winter season at the venue.

I have seen a version of this before - age and gin forbid me from putting a date on it - but some of the cast were familiar as well as the minimal set. It is an interesting take on the 19th century opera premise of 'girl meets boy, girl dies'. More 'girl is sold to boy, girl is forced into culturally oppressive suicide by unforgiving weight of American imperialism'. That aside, it is a powerful and bold tale, succinctly sung and staged in two acts.

I have to say that the first act seemed subdued and a bit perfunctory. Lieutenant Pinkerton (Merūnas Vitulskis) of the US Navy buys a 999-year lease on a house overlooking Nagasaki Bay as well as a shorter lease on a Japanese bride, Cio-Cio-San (Anne Sophie Duprels), the eponymous Madama Butterfly. Pinkerton is warned of the fragility of Butterfly by the ever-sympathetic American consul, Sharpless (Peter Savidge). His arrogance and lust dismisses Sharpless’s concern as he takes Butterfly for his own.

Perhaps it seemed subdued in the light of the emotion of the second act, and perfunctory for all the groundwork it has to do to get us there. If this seems overly critical, the first act was brought to an end by a pre-orgasmic love duet by Duprels and Vitulskis, beautifully sung and tender as the night. 

The second act finds Cio-Cio-San abandoned for three years, nearly broke, with only her maid Suzuki (Ann Taylor) as well as a young child, Sorrow (Oliver Chambers/Ava Quinn) who will be renamed Joy on Pinkerton’s return. His return imminent, Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki and Sorrow wait as the sun sets. Is there such a thing as a voiceless aria? The music as dusk falls and dawn rises over Mount Fuji, for me, is the most moving of the whole opera, played by a talented orchestra conducted by Martin Pickard.

Pinkerton arrives with his new, American bride, forcing Butterfly to consider giving up Sorrow. Telling all to return in half an hour, she knows what she must do. She commits ritual suicide in a musical crescendo that I imagine left few dry eyes in the house. A night worthy of a red carpet.

Reviewer: Robert Hamilton

Comments

Comment by Robert Beale

It's the 2007 production by Tim Albery back again, seen here not only then but in 2011, too, and its original cast for Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki and Sharpless are still acting and singing it beautifully and with great skill. The variable factor in its appearances has been Pinkerton - last time it was Noah Stewart, a fine tenor who has gone on to great things in the UK and his native America since then, and he brought an aspect of likeableness to the US Navy lieutenant that was quite surprising given that the guy is, in the story, an out-and-out cad. Merūnas Vitulskis, likewise, managed to evoke a degree of sympathy, and his voice was magnificent on the high notes though at times a little underpowered on the lower ones. But it's still Anne Sophie Duprels' show: she is a great Cio-Cio-San and catches the combination of innocence and inner steel which is essential to the role while singing gloriously throughout. My only cavil would be Martin Pickard's pacing in the second act, as while the music is sensuously gorgeous in the Humming Chorus tune and around it, it does simply fill in time while nothing much happens, and needs to be shifted along a bit (at least some of it).