This magnificent staging of Puccini’s passionate opera of love and betrayal returns for a sixth season.
In a packed Royal Albert Hall, with a rapturous audience, it’s difficult to imagine that the first performance of Madam Butterfly back in 1904 was a complete disaster, labelled a ‘diabetic opera’, with jeers and catcalls throughout. But Puccini bounced back with a revised version only months later, and this time the performance set in motion the stunning success that’s continued ever since.
The story is still deeply shocking, with American Lieutenant Pinkerton rolling in to port and marrying a young Japanese bride, Cio Cio San, who is consequently roundly rejected by her own society. In her devotion it never occurs to her that he doesn’t take the marriage as seriously as she does – until Pinkerton returns with a new ‘real’ American bride, intending to take Butterfly’s adored child back the States.
This production, directed by David Freeman, is making its sixth appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, in a staging that is spectacularly beautiful but also thoroughly immersive. The doors all around the main auditorium are used as entrances and exits throughout the performance, bringing the leads, the chorus and other characters up-close and personal to the audience.
This contact is especially important, because the sheer size and scale of the Royal Albert Hall inevitably lose some of the intimacy that a smaller staging can bring, and an opera of this emotional intensity needs close audience engagement.
The stunning Japanese water-garden set is designed by David Roger. Built in the round, its 15,000 gallon pools are connected by wooden walkways, all leading to the open structure of Butterfly’s home. Its open screens and shutters allow a direct line of vision throughout for everyone in the great auditorium, and it’s an absolute triumph of art, combining a magnificently grandiose idea with delicacy and beauty of line.
Andrew Bridge’s outstanding lighting design is equally crucial to the success of the production. The gradual nightfall on Butterfly and Pinkerton’s wedding night is simply beautiful, with floating candles on the water and dusk closing in on the newlyweds, whose modesty is preserved even behind a gauzy curtain by a deft lighting change.
And Butterfly’s agonising all-night wait for Pinkerton to come back to her is superbly done at the end of Act II, with dawn breaking on her desperately isolated figure.
The role of Cio Cio San is sung by Nam-Young Kim (and by Hyeseoung Kwon and Myung-Joo Lee in other performances).
She is tender and yearning in the role, and if her vibrato takes her somewhat beyond the fifteen-year-old age range, her passion and despair in the final act match all the grandeur of the music.
As Pinkerton, soaring tenor James Edwards has a commanding presence and just the right amount of casual selfishness to warrant his status as a cad. He shares the role with Jeffrey Gwaltney and Mario Sofroniou.
Sabina Kim, Catherine Hopper and Marcia Bellamy, play loyal maid Suzuki, with David Kempster, Wyn Pencarreg and James Cleverton as conscience-stricken Sharpless.
And the whole drama is drawn together by the excellent Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted with power and passion by Oliver Gooch.
Sound designer Bobby Aitken also performs a vital role in ensuring an appropriate balance of voices and instruments, with so much potential for either to be lost in the grand heights of the building.
After five previous seasons, there is now a strong sense of loyalty and tradition to the production, with its huge cast creating a convincing village life in the walkways around the water. And despite what it sacrifices in intimacy, this is a Madam Butterfly that thrills with its sheer spectacle.
• Until March 15
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