Since emerging on the opera scene in 2009 with their award-winning smash hit version of La Bohème, OperaUpClose have spent the past decade crafting approachable takes on an art form that can sometimes struggle to resonate with a wider audience. It is apt that their latest piece returns to another beloved work from Giacomo Puccini’s body of work, Madam Butterfly.
The central conceit for this production is moving it to a 1980s setting, even if the broad thrusts remain the same. Madam Butterfly opens with a young American (Pinkerton) who has come to
There is much to recommend in this new version of Madam Butterfly. Ruth Chan’s orchestration loses none of the potent beauty of Puccini’s, whilst Poppy Burton-Morgan’s translation is effective at exploring the opera’s central themes, even if it is a tad blunt at times. One of the standouts of this production is Cindy Lin’s design work. The set is exceptional and is perhaps where the '80s setting comes into its own. Lin’s set is a small apartment jutting out from the centre of the stage, which has a transformative quality between the first two acts. It gives a focus to proceedings and is used effectively throughout.
At the production’s core is an interesting interpretation of Madam Butterfly, with a far greater focus on the transactional nature of the central relationship and the treatment of women in general. The problem, though, is that Puccini’s original opera, and the narrative that it encompasses, rarely gives the female characters agency. This limits how compelling this interpretation is, as once Pinkerton has left the narrative the opera feels like it is in stasis. It is not a critique of the performers - more that this version doesn’t successfully manage to make its argument fully resonate. We sympathise with Cio-Cio-San’s plight but we aren’t necessarily impacted by it, which is a shame, as it undermines the good work exhibited by other elements of this production.
Madam Butterfly’s ensemble is exemplary, effectively crafting well-characterised personae no matter the size of their role. Refreshingly for the production’s intended focus, the standouts are two of the female characters. Jane Monari’s turn as Suzuki gives the production a fascinating grounding, as she holds together much of the second-half proceedings, and the weight of the tragedy comes through her delicate singing. And Mariam Tamari is sensational as Cio-Cio-San, with many of the standout moments belonging to her. It is a heartbreaking turn that manages to rise above the victim role that the narrative places on her.
It is this raft of outstanding performances, as well as the really quite fabulous set, that makes OperaUpClose’s latest production so compelling. It is a shame, though, that the company can’t recreate the immersive quality of their original spark of genius, even if they are clearly comfortable in exploring Puccini’s work. Although flawed, this is a production that, at its best, thrills and acts as an interesting introduction to the world of opera.