Madam Butterfly, Welsh National Opera at Bristol Hippodrome

WHEN the curtain rose showing a white gauze curtain which in turn rose to reveal a completely bare white set dominated by a two-storey, futuristic house mounted on a revolve, my companion – and many others in the audience – exclaimed “Wow!”

When the chorus entered, again clad in white, in contrast to the two Americans, Pinkerton and the Consul, Sharpless, in pale blue suits, one thing was certain:  Lindy Hume’s production was definitely not going to be a traditionally staged one.

Leonardo Caimi’s Pinkerton is completely self-absorbed, reminding you of a rich dilettante in an F Scott Fitzgerald novel, with his mind fixed only on the pleasure to come with his child bride. He is obviously taking no notice of the sound advice being given by Mark Stone’s carefully presented Sharpless.  Musically, this is not the most memorable part of the opera, but important in setting up the story – the vocal exchange between this pair captured the spirit of the moment. The agonies that Sharpless goes through as his prophesies become reality were equally well drawn.

An even better vocal blend was to come when Cio-Cio-San joins Pinkerton. There is fun and flippancy from Caimi, and blind, wholehearted love from Joyce El-Khoury as their voices blend seamlessly together. Although it is a little difficult to accept El-Khoury physically as a 15-year-old, the manner in which she immediately conveys her naïve love and trust for Pinkerton quickly puts such thoughts out of your head.

The contrast between the childlike simplicity of the girl and the maturity of the young mother, just three years later, is expertly drawn, not only shown dramatically, but in the way she tackles the heavy vocal challenges of the second act.

All of the action takes place in and around designer Isabella Bywater’s almost constantly revolving house. Taking advantage of some inventive effects by lighting designer Elanor Higgins, director Lindy Hume creates some fascinating, often exciting moments. But there are also moments when you feel that the revolve has turned once too often and at that moment is intrusive rather than supportive.

Never intrusive and giving maximum support throughout was the WNO orchestra, conducted with an ease and skill acquired over many years by Carlo Rizzi. If you have conducted Madam Butterfly as many times as Mr Rizzi it would be easy to become blase when faced once again with Puccini’s score. This is never an option in this skilled practitioners’ hands – he is constantly alert to every need of the singers and the orchestra.

The chorus and a string of important supporting characters have to live off musical scraps, but with that fine support from the conductor and orchestra they never come up short.

It is difficult to compare and evaluate this modern production with a traditional version. One thing is certain the principal singers and musicians would be equally at home faced with either interpretation. If you have only seen a traditional production of Butterfly, I recommend you see this one – whether you approve or not it never lacks interest and most certainly will be musically pleasing.


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