AMERICAN imperialism and child sex trafficking are never out of the news these days, but when Giacomo Puccini composed Madame Butterfly the adverse audience reaction was to the music rather than the subject matter.
For the final opera of the 2018 Iford Festival, director Bruno Ravella has tried to merge both the political reality of the Pinkerton marriage and the passionate romanticism of the music in a production that centres around the finest acting performance ever seen in the cloister since the festival began 25 years ago.
The passion and intensity that Chinese soprano He Wu brings to the title role emphasises both the youthful determination and unwavering faith of Puccini’s heroine, married by financial arrangement to a visiting US naval officer, abandoned within months and doggedly watching the horizon over Nagasaki harbour for his ship’s return. As beautifully sung as it is heart-rendingly characterised, Cio-Cio-San’s fate is evident from the first. He Wu’s “big aria”, One Fine Day, was so enthralling that the audience held back from the applause it so richly deserved.
The staging for the production used every inch of the tiny cloister, raising the action to eye level for all the audience in a series of terraces designed by Flavio Graff, who was also responsible for the costumes.
The dichotomy between the Japanese and American customs were brought to the fore, as Philip Smith’s Sharpless tried in vain to deter Lt Pinkerton from a capricious and thoughtless marriage to a pretty 15 year old, married off by marriage-broker Goro (Simon Gfeller) to save her family from destitution. Anthony Flaum’s nauseatingly supercilious Pinkerton, sung with powerful self-congratulatory gusto, crumpled into (probably short lived) regret three years later when Butterfly took the only route possible to save their son.
Sandra Porter is the faithful, angry and anguished Suzuki, with Hanna Liisa Kirchen the unknowing American bride. There’s a marvellously sensitive performance by the child playing the young son.
Thomas Blunt conducts the excellent Chroma Orchestra for the production, which continues on 26th. 28th and 31st July and 2nd and 4th August.
Quite rightly, it is the image of Butterfly waiting for her husband’s return that will be embossed on the memory, and audiences at this Iford 2018 finale will know that they are seeing one of the great Butterflies, early in a career that began as a child star in China.
Only return tickets are now available for Iford, but sign up to get one if you can.