The Welsh National Opera’s previous version of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly premiered in 1978 and ran for more than 40 years, so introducing a new version was not without risks – but last night’s performance at the New Theatre packed such a powerful emotional punch it is clear that the risks paid off. This is a bold, contemporary Madam Butterfly, in which the personal tragedy at the centre of the story feels like the direct result of present-day issues: human trafficking; extreme global inequality; the continuing legacy of colonialism. But as well as being relevant and taking risks, it is also an incredibly beautiful production – a true work of art.
The story has been placed in a non-specific semi-futuristic time, and the only references to Japan are in the original names and place-names – ‘Japan’ now standing for any place where wealthy Westerners come and go on short-term postings, skewing the local economy in favour of servicing their needs, and with no real sense of the impact they have. We were thrown into a world which was oddly familiar – the minimalist Pinkerton house which forms the central staging feature for the show could be IKEA’s solution to housing issues (yes please!), but also distinctly unreal. The social elite breeze about this world in pastel tailoring, with a bit of Barbarella-meets-Baroque, the empty white stage around the house suggests no other information. A blank canvas on which to paint emotions.
In the first act, the effect of this nowhere/everywhere land initially made Butterfly’s precarious position a little less apparent – her alternatives were vague, with no hint of poverty. It felt like a very lovely spectacle, but a little at odds with the subtle menace of the lines – all those lusty comments, the threats of her destruction, the brutal economics of selling teenage brides (‘too old’ at 15, as Butterfly points out). However, as Butterfly and Pinkerton go further into their first night as husband and wife, the emotional gears shifted. The science fiction tropes and wow factor faded into the background, as we were treated to a wonderfully sensory exploration of their power dynamics – and finally, the moment they go to bed together.
In the second act, the tone was immediately different. In the intimate setting of Butterfly’s home life, we were treated to a masterclass in emotional storytelling. Everything was grubbily familiar – the slouchy old hoodie, piles of laundry, the child in a dinosaur onesie. Butterfly’s story no longer felt like an abstract concept, but a very real portrayal of family dysfunction and the smudgy line between helpful optimism and destructive delusion. The exchanges between Butterfly and Suzuki perfectly captured two women locked in to a spiralling situation, and created a gripping sense of horrible anticipation.
Once Pinkerton’s ship has been sighted in the harbour, the show shifted gear again, into a kind of poetic, slow-motion car-crash. In the final night before she discovers the awful truth, we were treated to a series of stunningly beautiful moments – but each tinged with our knowing that things were not going to go well. For me, the child painting flowers on the wall, and the Butterfly sitting on her bed, waiting, were all the more heartbreaking for being so gorgeous.
The finale, in which Butterfly learns that she was never the ‘real’ wife, and sees everything taken from her, was utterly gripping – there’s a sense that we, the audience, had been slow-cooked in emotion, from the stylistic start through to the stark horror of what has been done to this young woman. There is nowhere to hide from her suffering.
Director Lindy Hume’s WNO debut feels fresh, thought-provoking and uncomfortably beautiful – and sets up Madam Butterfly as a vital, contemporary story which showcases the emotional power of opera as an art form.
Welsh National Opera - Madam Butterfly: New Theatre
Features a live orchestra, and subtitles in English (the performance is sung in Italian).