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Puccini, Madam Butterfly: Soloists and Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Oliver Gooch. Royal Albert Hall, London. 24.2.2011 (JPr)

 Picture © Raymond Gubbay Productions

David Freeman's 'in the round' Madam Butterfly that was first staged at the Royal Albert Hall in 1998 was receiving its fourth revival courtesy of Raymond Gubbay. It is clear to see why it so popular as it represents a stereotypical view of Japan from the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century, the very time of the composition of Puccini's opera to a libretto based on original stories by John Long and David Belasco. It is the well-known story of a US Naval Lieutenant, Pinkerton, who marries a 15-year-old geisha girl, Cio-Cio San or Butterfly, so she can keep him company while in Nagaski; with every intention from the start of abandoning her once his tour of duty is over. Sadly Butterfly trusts the American and waits - and waits - for him to show him the son she has borne him and that he knows nothing about. Naturally he has married 'back home' and when he returns to Japan with his young wife he claims his child and Butterfly commits hara-kiri.

Strangely enough a couple of days earlier on TV was the 1958 film The Barbarian and the Geisha. It was directed by John Huston largely on location and gives a fictionalised account of the US's first Consul-General to Japan, Townsend Harris, and the hostility he faced as a foreigner in the 1850s and 60s. It repeats a folk tale from the time of his supposed love for a young geisha - this time she was 17. He leaves her behind and she is also believed to have died by her own hand but many years later. There is a very great similarity in the stories of Townsend Harris and Okichi, his geisha, with Pinkerton and Butterfly: rarely however is Townsend Harris mentioned in the historical background to this opera.

The opera has its critics because of its story of imperialism and child-sex mixed in with its cartoon Occidentalism. David Freeman's orchid and lotus blossom-strewn production with a roofless skeletal representation of a traditional wooden Japanese house does nothing to address these issues. His designer, David Roger, gives an insight into what they were aiming for in his programme book essay: 'The breathtaking dimensions of the playing area enables Butterfly's poignantly isolated world to be represented in a way no proscenium stage could offer. The surrounding lake refers to the "The Floating World", the name given to the theatre and geisha district from which Butterfly has sought to escape … As her hopes and finances dry up in Act 2, so too does the water - its protective beauty exposing her to the stern reality of a stone Zen garden underneath'. These also, of course, become symbols of Butterfly's exclusion from her own culture and a reminder of the religion she abandoned for her husband's Christianity.

Act I is just too busy - and this is a perennial problem with these Arena stagings - it is performed in a large space and there is an urge to fill the space sometimes so the onlookers feel they are getting value for money. There was too much coming and going at the start, however attractive the kimonoed wedding party was and how atmospherically the paper-lantern bearing servants set the scene for the duet at the end of the Act. The immediacy of the entries and exits through the stalls was not helped by the Royal Albert Hall ushers often bringing latecomers often at the same time!

As in any production of Madam Butterfly the beauty and lyricism of the staging - as well as the singing - of the Act II Flower Duet and Humming Chorus and preceding those, Butterfly's anthem to eternal hope, 'One Fine Day' is but a prelude to the high tragedy of the events soon to overtake Butterfly. So Acts II and III are, by their very nature, more intimate and increasingly more traditional with only an occasional use made of the vast performing space. Basically the soloists stood and sang and faced the back of the stalls as they would do in a theatre: quite what those in the furthest reaches of the Royal Albert Hall saw of any of this I am not so sure. Only occasionally did the singers do their usual party piece of singing together and roaming over all the walkways to try and face all parts of the auditorium. The more static nature of these Acts - plus one or two excellent individual performances - cranked up the emotional impact of the work to the heights expected from this marvellous work.

Increasingly it does not seem possible to cast Madam Butterfly without using Asian singers and I will not dwell on the rights - or possible wrongs - of this here. It seems odd to have singers of Asian descent in most - but not all - the significant roles and leaving Aled Hall as the conniving Goro looking like Peter Lorre in his Mr Moto films. Simon Kirkbride was outstanding as The Bonze and Louis Otey was an experienced and well-acted Sharpless, his gravitas strongly reminding me of the many times I saw Norman Bailey sing this role. Nina Yoshida Nelsen sang Suzuki with a refined and very affecting mezzo voice and gave full rein to her character's support for Butterfly, yet revealing her own vulnerability.

Thanks to the excellent amplification most of the cast brought across the words of Amanda Holden's translation rather too well and her rhymes ('an army'/'origami', 'it's fantastic'/'are elastic' etc.) seemed rather jarring to begin with but didn't seem to matter so much as the evening went on. Unfortunately Mihoko Kinoshita's English diction as Cio-Cio San was not that good but thankfully her singing and portrayal of her plight was of the highest standard. She had the incandescent voice, with the electrifying high notes, this role demands, as well as, the suitably girlish and innocent demeanour not always possible for more mature singers of role. Unfortunately letting the side down was Philip O'Brien's Pinkerton: his voice had none of the legato phrasing the role requires and the voice was not supported well enough to allow often anything more than pinched top notes. As a character he was gauche and had none of the braggadocio of a Naval Lieutenant … he needs to channel his inner-John Wayne more!

Oliver Gooch and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gave an accomplished account of the score with any opportunity for nuance being lost through a 'smoothing out' by the amplification. It was all a bit too loud in Act I and the soloists and willing chorus tended to be overwhelmed but the balance was better in the quieter Acts II and III.

In the end I really did enjoy the evening on many counts but I was glad to have not seen it before because there is nothing really memorable about it that would entice me to see this production again. 2011 promises 'a spectacular new production' of Aida again staged in-the-round and this time 'amidst the ruins of Ancient Egypt' - sadly a sight we have become too familiar with recently through watching the news on TV.

Jim Pritchard

For information about remaining performances of Madam Butterfly with various casts visit:


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