Madame Butterfly: The Welsh National Opera
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Opera Tour Review: Madame Butterfly, the Welsh National Opera, touring across the country until 22 May 2022. Dates and booking links here.
[Disclosure: I attended Madame Butterfly for free, for the purposes of this review.]
The Welsh National Opera is touring a completely reimagined staging and production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and it is wonderful!
The story of Madame Butterfly is based on French naval officer Pierre Loti’s autobiographical novel, Madame Chrysanthemum about the month he spent stationed in Nagasaki living with a young Japanese girl.
A first edition of Madame Chrysanthemum, which you can buy here.
Loti’s novel, published in 1887, was an instant hit in his native France and largely shaped the way Western Europeans saw Japan and the Japanese. The view of Japan expressed in Madame Chrysanthemum can be felt even today - particularly the caricature that young Japanese women hold some sort of special and exotic, sexual promise.
Pierre Loti, on right, with the real Madame Butterfly, O-Kane san. Photograph in the public domain.
Puccini adapted the story of Madame Chrysanthemum – creating the character of Pinkerton – an American soldier stationed in Japan who enters into a form of contractual concubinage, which is dressed up as a marriage with a ceremony and guests. To the 15-year-old Butterfly, it is a real marriage. To the much older Pinkerton, the ceremony is a bit of fun; the concubinage contract containing multiple options to terminate.
Pinkerton returns to America and his real wife soon after, abandoning Butterfly to poverty and social exclusion – comforted only by her loyal servant Suzuki and her little boy, Pinkerton’s son.
In this new production, the WNO has updated the staging to emphasise the many difficult aspects of the story – rather than focussing, as has been the tradition, on the “exotic far East”. I do understand the focus on the mysterious East – it gives so much scope for gorgeous sets and costumes, which has created the most magnificent fantasy stagings. However, this more contemporary focus makes the story seem so much more relevant, modern and real.
It is this authenticity that distinguishes this beautiful and heart-breaking production more than anything else. The story is carried by the truly extraordinary performances given by Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Butterfly, British mezzo-soprano Kezia Bienek as Suzuki and British baritone Mark Stone, who plays the American Consul, Sharpless.
Normally, in productions of Madame Butterfly along with fantasy sets and costumes comes operatic acting. Operatic acting means that you can never really forget that you are at the opera.
In this production, however, the acting was truly exceptional; the three characters of Butterfly, Suzuki and the Consul played their parts with the absolute veracity that you typically associate with actors at the top of their game. This made for a very emotional experience – particularly when Pinkerton and his American wife, come to adopt Butterfly’s son and take him back to America.
The set design is also quite brilliant – the stage is dominated by Pinkerton’s and Butterfly’s all white, modernist house – that starts out looking like something elegant and minimalist designed by Le Corbusier.
By the final act, the shine has come off and the cool and clean minimalism has morphed into grubby flat-pack, high density living. Kudos to designer Isabella Bywater for achieving that transformation.
There two aspects about the production that I didn’t really like – though they are minor in the scheme of things and completely subjective.
The first was the costume design in the first act. The costumes of the Japanese characters in the first act, especially of the young women, were a deliberate misinterpretation of the Japanese Lolita and Decora fashion styles prevalent in the Harajuku area of Tokyo.
Lolita fashion as worn by Rinda Hayashida. Photo credit: TokyoFashion.com
I think that this deliberate misinterpretation must have been made as a symbolic reflection of Pinkerton’s misunderstanding of the woman he was “marrying”.
Decora fashion style, as worn by Rikutama. Photo credit: TokyoFashion.com
The costumes cleverly morphed into something more truthful in the second act. Faithfully recreated, Lolita and Decora fashion styles contain enough irony and caricature (as well as uncomfortable beauty) to allow plenty of scope to morph into truth, without needing to stray into Marge-Simpson-barbie territory.
The second aspect that I felt didn’t quite work was the movement design in the first act when the whole cast was on stage. There was something awkward and caricaturish about the movements of the ensemble cast. Again, this awkward, formulaic movement design would have been the point, but it ended up looking a bit under rehearsed – which I know that it was not.
These two criticisms are minor in the scheme of the whole production, which is utterly superb and a glorious reintroduction to live opera supported by a full orchestra.
All photographs not otherwise labelled, were provided by the Welsh National Opera for use in this review and were photographed by Richard Hubert Smith.