Madama Butterfly

Produced by Ellen Kent.
New Theatre, Sat 25th January 2020

January 27, 2020
A tragic Butterfly

Another year, another excellent Ellen Kent opera at the New Theatre: this time she gave us a splendid version of the classic Madama Butterfly by Puccini.

Developed in several versions in the early 1900s, this tragic opera is about Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), an impoverished, 15 year old geisha, who sees an opportunity when B.F. Pinkerton, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, arrives in her home port of Nagasaki. She falls in love with him, or perhaps with the advantages he might provide. He takes advantage of the lax Japanese laws on marriage and, driven by desire, enters into a marriage of convenience, brokered by Goro, the matchmaker. Pinkerton has no intention of staying married to Butterfly: post-consummation, he plans to annul the contract and return to America to find a more suitable American wife. Pinkerton is counselled with wisdom by Sharpless, the U.S. consul, but does not heed his advice and completes his plan.

Left behind in Nagasaki, Butterfly waits and waits, having faith that her sailor will return. She looks after her blue-eyed son by Pinkerton, and daily watches ships come into the harbour. She refuses other offers of marriage from Goro, and with her maid, Suzuki, at her side, slowly slips into penury.

In the third Act, Pinkerton does return accompanied by Kate, his American wife, and reveals that he has no intention of reuniting with Butterfly, and that he now wants to take his son back to America. Cue tragedy.

This is all presented with aplomb by Ellen Kent’s talented team. She herself directs and produces the opera, and the Music Director, Nicolae Dohotaru, stylishly conjures a good orchestral performance throughout. The set is magical, with a Japanese “paper house” centre stage, lanterns and blossoms everywhere, and at stage right, a shrine with statues and a fountain providing tinkling water sounds. The singing is accomplished, with all roles performed to a high standard. Myroslava Shvakh-Pekar stands out in the minor role of Suzuki, and Iurie Gisca likewise as Sharpless.In the major roles, Giergio Meladze (Pinkerton) is highly convincing and sings well, despite some booing at the end, doubtlessly because of the character not the performance. His acting is not as strong as his singing, unless he is deliberately going for “unemotional”. This opera is, of course, a gem of a sing for Butterfly (Elena Dee), and she does not disappoint.In fact, she gives a brilliant performance - full of nuance and emotion, capturing the torment and conflict in the character. A real triumph and perhaps the best Butterfly I have ever seen.

Yes, another year and yet another success for Ellen Kent.

May 6, 2012

Award-winning producer Ellen Kent returns to the touring circuit, after a brief period of retirement, with this polished and affecting version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly; this time showcasing the talents of the Ukranian National Opera of Kharviv, with Korean soprano Elena Dee in the title role. The story of a Japanese child-bride bought and swiftly abandoned by self-serving American seaman Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton, Madama Butterfly remains one of the most popular and frequently-staged operas, appealing to a universal recognition of blind love, and sympathy for the pitiable heroine. The staging of this production is thoroughly traditional, a humble wooden hut seen through the trees, against a background of a serene and rippling bay – but this is an opera of strong contrasts which works well with a simple setting for its powerful themes, leaving the audience free to concentrate on the music, and on the exploration of conflicting desires and cultural divides.

With a sweet, strong soprano which transcends, but doesn’t overpower, the other voices in the cast, Dee is more than equal to the task facing her. From the outset, she brings a sense of innocence and delicacy to the part; her delivery of Butterfly’s best-known aria ‘Un bel di vedremo’ is genuinely spine-tingling; a declaration of hopeful love made possible by the naivety of youth. The rest of the cast provide strong support – Vickoriia Zhytkova gives a believable and confident turn as Butterfly’s maid Suzuki; and Vladimir Dragos as US Consul Sharpless is sympathetic and dignified, while show-stealing toddler Georgiy Fominichenko caused ripples of laughter and brought a few tears to the eye with his performance as Butterfly and Pinkerton’s son. Andriy Perfilov as the perfidious Pinkerton seemed to lack confidence at first, struggling to be heard over the conductor Vitalii Kutsenko’s well-drilled orchestra, but he gained in strength and at the close wryly accepted a few boos on behalf of his character, alongside his own deserved applause.

This is an opera all about clashes between different value systems, and cultural tension is one of the main themes at play: Butterfly is ready to give up every aspect of her Japanese heritage for the love of her husband, while Pinkerton approaches their relationship from an unwaveringly western point of view – but in the end, his bride cannot escape the culture in which she was raised, seeking honourable escape from an insupportable existence in traditional Japanese fashion. It’s not the most subtle interpretation of the mores of either country in the early 1900s, but it’s impossible not to react to the emotion of the piece and the poignancy of the story, so ably conveyed by Puccini's impeccable score, and movingly interpreted by these musicians.

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