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Madama Butterfly

by on 21 April 2018

The American God Does Not Know We Are Here

Madama Butterfly

by Giacomo Puccini,  libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

Ellen Kent Productions, Richmond Theatre until 21st April, then tour continues until 15th May

Review by Matthew Grierson

The small details in Madama Butterfly are telling. When Cio-Cio San’s family playfully continue to refer to her as “Madame Butterfly” after her wedding, her rebuke that she is now “Madame Pinkerton” is signalled by Maria HeeJung Kim’s beguilingly artless frown. While everyone else is happy to carry along with the idea of the marriage as a game, she remains the child, insistently playful, that her husband sees in her – and which his friend Sharpless fears she still is. Kim’s performance conveys and maintains this childlike seriousness throughout, to its tragic consequences.

Ruslan Zinevych, as Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, is in turn convincingly adolescent, capturing the lieutenant’s carefree, careless character economically. He wafts a fistful of dollars in gentle mockery of the fan his bride will use; and, given his praise of the flexibility of Japanese laws on property and marriage, one wonders if he is taking a flutter on both. Zinevych’s Pinkerton smiles graciously through the opening courtship, charmed but at one remove, and is initially unable to offer the full declaration of love he seeks from his bride. As the first act proceeds, his smirk becomes a frown of his own, petulant at his wife’s anxieties before the marriage is consummated, though the orchestra underscores her mood rather than his, soaring before becoming flighty.

Butterfly 3

Fittingly for an operatic tragedy, where action plays out by convention and characters routinely declare their emotions through song, the crucial scenes are performed silently behind the bamboo and rice paper pavilion of Pinkerton’s home, and thrown into silhouette by judicious lighting. This is how we see Butterfly don her bridal gown, though both her attire and Pinkerton’s own white naval uniform are disingenuous, given her past and his intentions, another display for convention’s sake. It is also where we see Butterfly and Pinkerton share their first kiss, where three years later she and her child and servant wait the night for Pinkerton’s arrival, and, finally, where she commits suicide with the dagger that is among the prized possessions she has shown to her husband earlier in the opera.

Butterfly 2

Too tight a focus can sometimes be to the production’s detriment. It is difficult to see all of Butterfly’s keepsakes as she holds them for Pinkerton’s inspection, for instance, in contrast to the evident detail lavished on the set to conjure the Japanese setting. Such is the concern with precision that the cast will also from time to time discreetly adjust a cushion or pull the house doors fully closed when the set has not been entirely cooperative. And as the production affords more significance to images in creating its effects, movement is mostly gentle, with a brief fight between the formidable Suzuki (Zara Vardanean) and obsequious marriage broker Goro (Ruslan Pacatovici) about as physical as it gets. But that is not to say this stasis cannot be used to great effect. Among the compliments Pinkerton showers on Butterfly in the first act is that she is as beautiful as a figurine; then, at the start of the second, she kneels, upright and static, her husband’s absence making her the statuette he imagined her to be.

Of course, one other small detail is Sorrow, as Butterfly names her child by Pinkerton. Unlike his mother, who is built up in song before her first appearance onstage, the boy is brought on unannounced, abashed, and to touching effect. Perhaps this should be no surprise when Pinkerton has already declared that an American male can rove the world “dropping anchor” wherever he likes, but tonight’s Sorrow, Darcy O’Toole, is endearing enough to win our sympathies, and again manages to speak a truth in his necessary silence.

The personal is, after all, always political in Madama Butterfly, especially when the male lead is named for a US founding father (and rover himself), and the parallels between American masculinity and the military are drawn out in Pinkerton’s opening exchange with the consul, Sharpless. Butterfly herself also sees significance in American identity, although for her it is a culture she feels it is critical to assume having renounced her Buddhist faith, and thus, by default, her family. It is, then, another lovely detail when she welcomes the sceptical consul, a sympathetic Iurie Gisca, to her “American home” – in reality, the same rice paper pavilion with which Pinkerton has left her – and then she, Sharpless and servant Suzuki all kneel on cushions. This signals the constant return to social expectation in spite of intention, which is the movement of the story as a whole. Sharpless’ reluctant prediction of Butterfly and Pinkerton’s fate in the first act is reflected in his reluctance in the second to disclose to Butterfly that her groom has now taken the American bride about whom he previously fantasised.

What makes the piece both poignant and timely is Butterfly’s faith that America stands for something more noble – particularly in its treatment of women, as she explains in an aria comparing its divorce laws with those of her own country. Despite its serious tone, this also gives Kim the opportunity to impersonate an imagined American judge, a touch of humour that she delivers charmingly. All the same, the opera seems perpetually relevant in its awareness that men continue to treat women as disposable, and the US – that global bachelor – invites the affection and admiration of other nations only to spurn it by a return to its own.

There is more to Puccini than prospective political critique, though. It would be very easy for Mrs Pinkerton to be dismissive of her husband’s Japanese dalliance, but Myroslava Shvakh-Pekar’s serene performance conveys the sympathy necessary for her to take on Sorrow as her own (indeed, it is no stretch to believe that Friday’s child could be hers). Similarly, Pinkerton’s letter to Butterfly shows him to be at least humane, trying to let her down gently in person rather than abandoning her entirely, and Zinevych during his brief return to the stage in the final scene faithfully exhibits the lieutenant’s contrition.

Unfortunately, no sooner is his dying bride in his arms than the curtain abruptly falls. There is no time to appreciate the moment of Butterfly’s tragedy and Pinkerton’s remorse – an odd decision, given the care with which the show has curated its previous images. Ultimately, this Madama Butterfly is tender and touching, but does not quite realise its full dramatic, tragic potential.

Matthew Grierson
April 2018

Photography courtesy of Ellen Kent Productions

 

From → Opera, Reviews

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