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Madama Butterfly

by on 9 March 2020

Oceans Apart

Madama Butterfly

by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

Ellen Kent at Richmond Theatre until 8th March then on tour until 22nd April

Review by Vince Francis

The drive to Richmond was enriched by an intense rainbow straddling the A316. Was this a portent of some kind? We were on our way to see Ellen Kent’s production of Madama Butterfly at Richmond Theatre and I was a little apprehensive at the prospect of this assignment, not being an opera buff’ ’n all that. My initial thought was that it would boil down to my responses to three questions; firstly, given that my Italian is rudimentary at best, would the cast be able to convey the story? Secondly, would I be able to say that I was entertained by it? Thirdly would it engage me sufficiently to cause me to explore opera further?


Madama Butterfly is a tragedy – aren’t they all? – set in Nagasaki, itself to become the scene of the ultimate tragedy later in the century. Based on a one act play by David Belasco which, in turn was based on a short “pot boiler” story by John Luther Long, At its most basic, it is a case of girl meets boy, girl loses boy, the end. However, this is an oversimplification of a plot that explores some interesting and uncomfortable themes, such as the marriage of our heroine at the age of fifteen to an American naval officer. Also, we (I) learn that Butterfly, or Cio-Cio San, as the character is named, was a geisha prior to this marriage, hinting at exploitation of children. The cavalier attitude of the naval officer to this, and to his marriage vows perhaps suggests a view of American imperial ambitions of the time.


The principals all present us with well-drawn characters and real character development. Giorgio Meladze’s Pinkerton establishes himself as a swaggering cad in Dovunque al Mondo (Throughout the world), but shows real remorse when he realises the extent of his shallowness and duplicity at the end in Addio, fiorito asil (Farewell, flowery refuge).

I also enjoyed Miroslava Shvakh-Pekar’s portrayal of Suzuki, Cio-Cio San’s maid. The duet with Cio-Cio San in the second act, Tutti i fior? (All the flowers?) is particularly appealing. Iurie Gisca as Sharpless, the U.S. Consul brings a natural presence and authority to the role. Both have the talent of being able to react authentically and naturally in exchanges and when they are not in the focus of the action.

However, it is Elena Dee, as Cio-Cio San, who carries the main load of the show and gives us the complete emotional palate of the character. In this tyro’s humble opinion, Ms Dee is to be congratulated for maintaining a consistency throughout, having a delightful soprano voice, which can vary from delicacy to full force strength with apparent effortlessness.

It goes without saying that the singing is of premier quality. It may sound strange to say, but it is good to hear it sung in the original language, even if that presents a challenge to the less linguistically adroit among us (me). It appeals to my reasoning to suggest that the original language and the development of the music are inter-related.

However, if you are seated with a full orchestra between you and the performers, who I don’t think are mic’d, it is inevitable that there will be the odd moment when the vocals aren’t quite the match of the twenty-two musicians supporting, but such instances are rare.


I did wonder whether Zac O’Toole, as Cio-Cio San’s child, Sorrow, was entirely comfortable on stage and there was a minor moment of unscripted comedy when Cio-Cio San accidentally covered him entirely with the sleeve of her robe.

There are a couple of things which I was curious about, but which any regular opera goer might be able to enlighten me on; firstly, if the night is indeed so quiet and peaceful and serene, why exactly are we singing at full volume about it? Secondly, there is an intermezzo in the second act which, presumably was written to cover a scene change between act II and act III. However, since the scenery is not changed throughout, it would seem to be a candidate for a little judicious pruning – or is that a heresy?
Having said all that I felt more engaged in the second act, which seemed to have more emotional content.


This is a touring production, so the set is kept simple in principle, with the focus being the house truck set centre stage. This uses translucent panelling, which is effective in providing silhouetted action at various points in the show. There are two other flats set stage right and left to depict garden walls, but which also serve to mask entrances and exits. The real artistry here is in the set dressing, though. Clever and interesting use of floral arrangements, together with a working water feature provide enough to describe the setting without being overly fussy. Lighting is subtle and efficient.


The orchestra, under the brisk and expressive direction of Vasyl Vasylenko, supported well and delivered Puccini’s trademark flowing and sweeping lines with aplomb.
Looking at the souvenir brochure, there appear to be two orchestras involved, each with its own conductor. The cast list provided for Sunday evening’s performance indicated that the conductor was Nocolae Dohotaru, which would imply the production was supported by Orchestra of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Moldova. However, the conductor in front of us looked an awful lot like the photograph of Vasyl Vasylenko, which, according to the brochure, would imply that the orchestra was that of the Ukrainian National Opera. They were superb, in any event and received a well- deserved cheer at the end. Incidentally, I did spot a little motif which I would be prepared to have a small side bet on that Schönberg “lifted” and used in the song Bring Him Home in Les Miserables.

So, how did it do on my initial questions? Well, linguistically, the sur-titling helps considerably, although it can be distracting. Did the cast portray the story well anyway? Yes, they did. Was I entertained? Yes, very much so. Do I want to see more? Maybe. It’s good to get outside your comfort zone. So they tell me.

Vince Francis
March 2020

Photography by Mark Douet

  1. ilona1505 permalink

    How can I access the Wolves review?

    Best Ilona


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