Review: Welsh National Opera’s Madam Butterfly at Mayflower Theatre

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Spectacular

I would love to give it five stars, but there’s that niggling feeling that the production’s beauty was compromised by typecasting Japanese characters, and that the composition’s political subtext was devalued by refocussing attention elsewhere. It might serve to explain why other productions are more popular.

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The Welsh National Opera was back in Southampton for another week, and what a week it was! I joked in my last Edge review on The Merchant of Venice that 7pm is inconvenient timing if you don’t live in the city centre and desire the luxury of a home-cooked dinner beforehand. Baring in mind my concerns, they made the exceptional effort to move their start-times back to 7.15 and, for all my sarcasm, I am incredibly grateful.

Madam Butterfly represents the product of a curious middle-period in Giacomo Puccini’s career, roughly around 1895-1905, obsessed with notions of the exotic. Whereas, his three operas prior this time were largely Italy-centric, perhaps excepting Edgar, Butterfly looked towards the orient, and a new and exciting opportunity to explore different ideas of colour, both in the music as well as the staging. This might explain why its most famous productions are more-often-than-not, either minimalistic or metaphorical, rather than grand and literal. Both the English National Opera last year, and the Royal Opera House next year, have produced an edition of Madam Butterfly from the perspective of a mountain overseeing a pre-war Nagasaki, harboured in the distance, beneath a very obvious rising sun.

The WNO chose instead to revive Joachim Herz’s more traditional approach, fully inverting this perspective and offering a refreshingly intimate view of the plot. A novel model village with a model port and model ships adorned the front-of-stage. Meanwhile, a very cliché “futuma” architecture constructs the house that most productions seem to opt against the portrayal of.
On the one hand, it warmly reveals the personal relationships of the characters with each other and their psychologies. On the other hand, intimacy comes at a price. The inherent plot of John Long’s short story of the same name, from which the libretto originates, depicts a genius tale of love and deceit between an experienced American navy lieutenant and a fifteen-year-old native, Cio-Cio San.

With delicacy, you might presume either that times were simply different back then—in Puccini’s time, Long’s time, or the time in which the synopsis is based—but put simply, it was not enacted delicately. San’s character takes centre stage to make the process of guessing her age a cheeky game. The lieutenant’s first guess was “ten.” Albeit a written inclusion, Cio-Cio San was consciously styled as emphatically young.

In contrast, the lieutenant is grey, bearded, and vocally withered. The honeymoon scene unnervingly portrays his excited run to the bedroom, only to present himself on San’s bed sheets, turned towards her, arms outstretched… It was peculiar. While it might be believed that this was intended as the director’s own political critique of social norms at the time, this was made neither clear ‘nor necessary.

It was the unfortunate consequence of undertaking something that was otherwise a pleasure. As is all too often in modern opera productions, the plot was not tenuous in the slightest, and the use of aesthetic colour was truly exquisite. You might believe you were actually in Japan, with what I guessed were Cherry Blossoms forming a natural fence around the house.
Authenticity must have been imperative to the WNO, since they offered some genuinely insightful displays of Japanese culture. San’s “girls” timidly covered their faces with paper fans, not akin to Japanese fan-dancing, but more a nod to the Carry On film that never was. Moreover, the priest was the stereotype of a shaolin monk, dressed more like 007 in You Only Live Twice, rather than Wudao however.

Distracting typecasting aside, this is not to even begin dismissing the astounding talents of the WNO cast. They were every bit as incredible as a national opera company performance troupe is expected to be. The internationally renowned Karah Son took on the role of Cio-Cio San. Herself, a Korean singer, this was not for the first or last time. Her WNO biography listed her recent engagements as Cio-Cio San for Glyndebourne and Tornio, and her forthcoming engagements as Cio-Cio San for Leipzig, Narodowa, and Australia.

In my own personal opinion, and in a professional capacity as student of opera, Son was by far my favourite singer of the entire WNO Love’s Poisoned Chalice season. Son’s voice represents a power in music that might have seemed lost to the seminal age of Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti, but to hear her sing is to believe it stuck around forever. It is sad she feels restricted to only one role. Other noteworthy namedrops are the shaolin priest himself, Jihoom Kim (also leading in the WNO’s other Puccini production, La Boheme) and San’s servant, Suzuki, masterfully rendered by Rebecca Afonwy-Jones. The keen critic should have their eye on Rebecca especially. There’s an unfair opinion that opera singers cannot act, and she blows them out of the water.

The Stage writes that this production offers an anti-imperialist commentary on sex tourism. I hope this is true. Regardless, if you live in Southampton, you can go and see a national opera company come to you, and put on one of the most emotive, inspiring, and famous pieces of multimedia ever conceived in the human imagination (Seriously, Les Miserables is just a French-placed rip-off). You cannot fault the production or the singers, but (and you can see this when you visit) you will be confronted by something you do not expect in a Puccini opera; controversy.

Puccini did subtitle his first draft “a Japanese tragedy.” I originally thought this was due to the treatment of Cio-Cio on the back of an impassioned relationship she had no idea was failing. In this instance, it might be the sad appropriation and generalisation of important cultural tropes. I cannot complain though. It is £5 for good seats at the Mayflower Theatre and you can expect a similar quality of performance—and it was a spectacular performance—when the Welsh National Opera visits again.

They will be having intermediary performances in Cardiff and Birmingham of Die Fledermaus and Der Rosekkavalier in July. Check out the WNO’s event page.

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