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Madama Butterfly

by on 16 March 2022

Butterfly with Wings

Madama Butterfly 

by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

Sembla and Ellen Kent Productions at Richmond Theatre until 15th March, then on tour until 6th May

Review by Mark Aspen

Madama Butterfly must surely be one of the most moving of Puccini’s well-known operas, in its overarching theme of trust betrayed and the raw emotion of its tragic ending, it leaves even the most hard-hearted touched to tears.  However, even the pathos of this most poignant of endings was magnified when director-producer Ellen Kent’s new touring production visited Richmond Theatre.  At the curtain call, the cast broke out the Ukrainian flag and sang the Ukrainian national anthem to the proud music of the orchestra.  The soloists are mostly Ukrainian and its orchestra the Orchestra of the Ukrainian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kyiv, under the baton of Ukrainian conductor Vasyl Vasylenko.  Never could there have been such an enthusiastic response from an audience, who rose to their feet as a single body.

Nevertheless, even if were not for the heightened circumstances of a horrific war, this artistic integrity of this Madama Butterfly stands on its own as a piece of operatic exquisiteness.   It is a literal interpretation true to Puccini’s intentions that points up the music and poetry of the piece.

The setting, on a hill near Nagasaki in the early 1900s evokes a refined culture of an earlier age, one very different from that of the USA, and herein lies the moral, ethical and cultural clash that forms the plot of the opera.  The set is the exterior of a traditional Japanese “paper” house and it precise garden, the shoji screens here doubling to project action inside the house as silhouettes.  The garden has Shinto shrines and bamboo water features.  

Thus is oriental idyll that that will, in its inevitable end, be punctured by the arrival of a US navy officer, Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton.  He has bought a long lease on the house.  He has also bought a bride from Gozo, the marriage broker, on much the same terms, “Salvo a prosciogliermi ogni mese” as he says (with the option to cancel every month).   Tenor Vitalii Lisovertski from the Kyiv National Opera takes the ambiguous role of Pinkerton, who goes in on these terms, falls for the charms of Cio-Cio San, his Butterfly bride, then once back on ship and, as he admits, with a girl in every port, he revert to type.  Lisovertski, who was himself once an officer (as a pilot in the Ukrainian military) looks resplendent in his white dress-uniform and plays the perfidious Pinkerton with aplomb.   His solo “Bimba, bimba, non piangere” (Dearest, don’t cry) after her uncle, The Bonze (an authoritarian bearing by bass, Valeriu Cojocaru) has disowned her, powerfully sung, is quite affecting. 

The Bonze has disowned her for renouncing her religion, but she is adamant even to the extent of throwing away statuette images of her ancestors.  Pinkerton is blind to the significance and sacrifice this entails for her; he is blinded by her charms.   His wedding night wooing continues; and the duet with Cio-Cio San is one of the musical highlights of this production.   “Vieni, vieni” (come), he urges her towards the house, while she sings of the lovely night, so many stars, “Dolce notte! Quante stelle! “.  Beautifully done.

The US Consul, Sharpless is appalled by Pinkerton’s behaviour and is a voice of restraint and prudence, but nevertheless he acts, well, diplomatically.  Moldavian baritone Vladimir Dragos gives a mature portrait of Sharpless, his mellow voice soft and reassuring.  Subtly played, his character’s frustration shows around the edges. 

Gozo the matchmaker has an altogether different view.  Grasping and greedy he doesn’t baulk at attempting to sell her again to Prince Yamadori (imposingly played by the lofty Vitalii Cebortari).  Ruslan Pacatovici as Gozo decorates his tenor with enough whinging to characterise the cupidity of the man, without losing the musicality.   His part is the only role in this opera that can allow a scintilla of humour to creep in. 

The contrasting role is that of Suzuki, Cio-Cio San’s maid, who is the epitome of loyalty and of patience, yet of perception.  Her cautions go unheeded by the romantic Cio-Cio San.  Katerina Timbaliuk, an internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano from the Odessa National Academic Opera, is outstanding in this role.  It is one of understanding and compassion, but Suzuki can be flirtatiously deferential, as when she first meets Pinkerton and compliments him on his smile, “Sorride Vostro Onore?  Il ‘riso è frutto e fiore”  (You smile, your Honour?  It is a smile of fruit and flowers.)  Or she can be feisty, as when she confronts Gozo for suggesting that Cio-Cio San’s child is illegitimate,  “Vespa! Rospo maledetto! ” (Wasp! Cursed toad!).

Madama Butterfly has only one location, only one plot and no sub-plots, and it is really only solely about the eponymous Madama Butterfly, the fifteen year-old Cio-Cio San.  She believes passionately in beauty, in faithfulness and in love, but above all in honour.  Korean soprano, Elena Dee portrays all the delicacy and fragility of the character, but also all her steadfastness and moral strength.  One of Puccini’s best-known arias is Cio-Cio San’s Un bel dì, vedremo (One fine day, we will see…) as in her mind’s eye she describes Pinkerton’s longed-for return.  I don’t know what it is, but there is something in this music that always has one welling-up with tears.  Add Dee’s superb singing, and it is exquisitely heart-rending.

If Un bel dì is another of the musical highlights of this production, a third is the well-known Humming Chorus, a three minute long entr’acte between the last two Acts of the opera.  This had the audience totally mesmerised as an ensemble sang off-stage and we saw the three figures, Cio-Cio San, Suzuki and the child silhouetted behind the shoji screen (part of Valeriu Cucarschi’s inspired lighting design).  The sound of the water featured enhanced the atmosphere of the Humming Chorus, but elsewhere was a little intrusive.

The set is designed for a touring across three dozen theatres of various sizes, Richmond being one of the smaller.  Consequently the stage did seem a little cramped.  Within the spirit of ikebana, that less is more in Japanese design, maybe some of the foreground flats could have been omitted.  

In a consummate performance, Vasylenko and his surprising large touring orchestra luxuriated in Puccini’s gorgeous melodies without ever letting the pace falter, with music that informed the emotional intensity of the work.

Cio-Cio San’s child (played with quiet acceptance by Kuba Lonzer) is the catalyst to the tragic final act.  Only through Sharpless does Pinkerton discover that he has a child, but when the push comes to the shove, he is too cowardly to face the situation, and leaves this to his new American wife, Kate.  (One wonders about the legality of this marriage.)  Mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Blokha plays Kate Pinkerton with the dignified awkwardness that the part demands.  Cio-Cio San has told Sharpless that the child is called Dolore (Sorrow), but it will be Gioia (Joy) when Pinkerton returns; one of the many ironies in Madama Butterfly.

After such a remarkable curtain call, one sensed the courage and sense of duty and honour that Cio-Cio San felt was mirrored that of the fellow countrymen of many of this Madama Butterfly company.  We pray that the outcome for Ukraine and indeed the whole of Eastern Europe, unlike Butterfly’s, will in the fullness of time enable them to survive and thrive.

Mark Aspen, March 2022

Photography courtesy of Ellen Kent Opera  

Leading Ukrainian ballet dancer Artem Datsyshyn, a former soloist at the Ukrainian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, has died, almost three weeks after being injured in Russian shelling in Kyiv.

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  1. Opera in a War-Riven World | Mark Aspen

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