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Madame Butterfly at Milton Keynes Theatre

Published by: Alison Smith on 10th Nov 2016 | View all blogs by Alison Smith

 By Clare Morris

Cio-Cio- San ( Karah Son) proudly displays her new wedding ring watched by Pinkerton (Matteo Lippi) © Glyndeborne Productions Ltd. Photo: Clive Barda

Jerome K Jerome had the theory that all songs had the same plot: ‘There lived a lass, and there came a lad, who loved and rode away’.  This certainly holds true in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, though with the added twist of the lad returning, but only to rub salt into the wounds. Lieutenant Pinkerton of the US Navy undertakes an arranged marriage with a young geisha known as Madame Butterfly, which she regards as binding but he has a more flexible view.  He returns to America leaving Butterfly behind and she spends the next three years awaiting his return along with the son that she bore him, of whom Pinkerton is unaware.  Pinkerton does return, not to take up with Butterfly again, but with a new American wife and they ask Butterfly to give up her son to them.  Butterfly realises that all hope of a reunion is over and takes her own life.

 The opera is set in early twentieth century Japan, but Annilese Miskimmon’s new production for Glyndebourne has been updated to the 1950’s which does cause a few problems with the story line. The production has a gritty rather than a conventional, pretty cherry blossom staging which underscores Pinkerton’s betrayal of a naïve and innocent child bride. Small points such as the copious amounts of cash being counted by Goro the marriage broker and the perfunctory confetti throwing by the secretaries, indicates clearly to it being little better than prostitution. This is further underlined by the prospective brides being displayed in a slide show as wares to be bought and sold.  This need to emphasise the reality of the situation does mean that the plot has become a bit of a square peg in a round hole.  Having their house displayed as a model when they should actually be inside it, really doesn’t work. The finale with the great love duet seems out of place in an office and why Goro allowed himself to be thrown out of his own bureau is inexplicable. In this first act the romance has been sacrificed to allow a different emphasis to the plot which unfortunately does not come off. Nicky Shaw’s sepia tinted sets are dull and whilst a change from the conventional gorgeous sets is understandable, the final result is visually unappealing and underwhelms at times.

 The flat carved cherry trees work much better in the second act and produce a charming frame for a silhouette of Butterfly and her son awaiting Pinkerton.

Cio-Cio-San (Karah Son) & Sorrow await Pinkerton © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo:Clive Barda

Cio-Cio-San (Karah Son) & Sorrow await Pinkerton © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo:Clive Barda

 In the third act, the twisting of the plot to fit the set again does not work so well. Butterfly’s attempts at becoming and ideal American wife in dress and at home are clever and sadly pathetic when contrasted with the real thing in Pinkerton’s new wife.  The death scene, however, is distinctly odd with Butterfly committing suicide behind her son whilst he plays with a toy ship. As she was sacrificing herself for his benefit, this failure to accept that he will then be left alone in a locked room with his mother’s blood stained corpse does not sustain belief.

 Musically, this is very enjoyable.  This is John Wilson’s first foray into opera after a highly successful career in films and, based on this production, will not be his last.  He brings out fine subtleties in the score and show a careful eye for detail. The Korean Karah Son is generally a fine Butterfly though on occasion her voice can become lost.  Her exquisite singing of Un bel di certainly brought a tear to my eye, though I would have preferred a more pianissimo opening like the wisp of smoke of which she is indeed singing. Matteo Lippi makes a fine Pinkerton and displays an effortless charm that would surely be needed in a bigamist who can attract two wives who both want to keep him, even when his infamy is clear. Francesco Verna was in fine voice as Sharpless and deservedly popular.

 This production may not appeal to traditionalists or to theatre goers who want a sumptuous visual spectical, as a well as fine music, but it is thought provoking and musically it is well worth seeing, with the orchestra being simply marvellous.

Madame Butterfly is at Milton Keynes Theatre on Saturday 12th November

 0844 871 7652

 Booking fee applies



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