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Madame Butterfly at the E. M. Forster Theatre


Barry Tone


Primi Divi Opera blog

I was delighted to be able to attend Surrey Opera’s Madama Butterfly – a most unexpected pleasure, as I was expecting to spend the evening somewhere else entirely. I had of course read about the production in Hairy McMungo’s (p)review – which, as always, proved frighteningly accurate. Violetta had volunteered to review this production, but she very kindly insisted that I write the review instead, although I must gratefully acknowledge the considerable assistance Violetta provided.
The performances were held in two venues: the Harlequin Theatre, Redhill and the E.M. Forster Theatre, Tonbridge School. The E.M. Forster is a wonderfully intimate venue with superb acoustics, but (through no fault of Surrey Opera’s) it proved rather difficult to find in the dark. Although the theatre has its own sign, it is not well-lit, and far more prominent is a sign to somewhere else, which was rather confusing. Fortunately, I was able find the correct venue in time, despite many wrong turns and rather embarrassing attempts to enter locked buildings.
James Hurley directed a rather unusual production, which worked extremely well, and had many original touches. Rob Mills’ set was simple – perhaps occasionally misleading, as Butterfly appeared to have her bedroom in the garden, whilst Suzuki seemed to dispatch Goro through one of the windows - but this made the latter scene all the more amusing, whilst the former was revealing about Butterfly’s mental state. In any case, the production was so strongly characterised, it did not matter in the least where the doors were.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the production was one that seemed distinctly odd to begin with, but moments later made such perfect sense, that the only wonder is that no other director appears to have thought of it before. Butterfly makes her first appearance with red-blonde hair. An important feature of this production is that Butterfly really does try to embrace the American culture. She not only adopts the American National Anthem into her arias, she also dresses as a young American girl might, in a summer dress rather than a kimono, occasionally also wearing her red wig. Yet there are still parts of her that are unfailingly Japanese: she kneels on a cushion to use the table, and has taught her son to do the same.
All this helped Rebecca Cooper to give a most touching interpretation of the title role, but she also deserves great personal credit for her fine performance, as both a singer and an actor. Her voice is rich and full, but she sometimes brings a lightness into her tone, a timbre generally reserved for opera’s greatest innocents, such as Pamina, Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier, although this could also apply to Werther); Zerlina, depending on the interpretation - and perhaps even Susanna (who is certainly very intelligent, but still has positive expectations of her marriage, despite the far from perfect example of her master and mistress). From Puccini’s own music, Mimi and Lauretta are often light-voiced: while Lauretta might share her powerfully persuasive abilities with her disreputable father Gianni Schicchi, she lives in a metaphorical bubble, only really concerned with her love for Rinuccio. Butterfly is certainly not one of the lighter soprano roles, but the hints of vocal lightness from Miss Cooper remind us that Butterfly, too, is an innocent character with far from realistic expectations.
While it is clear that, as a geisha, Butterfly has been taught well, Miss Cooper also demonstrates an endearingly girlish impulsiveness. For once we have a Butterfly who could indeed be fifteen years old – even Pinkerton’s initial guess that she is ten years old didn’t seem completely ridiculous, although it was, as always, disturbing in this day and age.
In the final scene, it is Butterfly’s own behaviour that becomes disturbing. In some productions, her devotion to Pinkerton seems no more than a sign of her romantic nature. Miss Cooper’s Butterfly, as Mr Hurley said in his programme notes, is a damaged and unhappy child, not so much full of romantic belief as barely clinging to her last hope. Certainly, she seems in no fit state to care for a child, and the young Nicholas Watts (not to be confused with the tenor of this name) shows us yet another tragedy: he seems painfully uncomfortable, even afraid, as his mother clings onto him desperately. Removing the child from his mother, who herself needs looking after, seems far more of a kindness to him than a cruelty towards her.
Stephen Anthony Brown sang Pinkerton at this performance, and here was another artist who gave a much more complete portrayal than is usually offered. In most productions, Pinkerton isn’t a particularly attractive character, and several recent singers who usually act extremely well have struggled to bring across Pinkerton’s finer qualities. His anguish (and understated acting, which is not always encouraged in Puccini tenors) is no less powerful than Butterfly’s. At the very least, Pinkerton deeply regrets his probably unknowing cruelty to Butterfly. But perhaps it could mean more than that: the ending in this production is certainly open in that respect, yet decidedly and sadly closed in another.
James Hurley said in his director’s note that Madama Butterfly is ‘a tragedy... of two young people who catastrophically misunderstand each other’ and that is something with which I have always agreed: after all, all Pinkerton is doing is following the rules of Butterfly’s society, and the real tragedy is perhaps not his treatment of her, but that Butterfly, despite the conventions of society, expects more. As Mr Hurley says, Butterfly expects Pinkerton to love her as she is determined to love him, but it doesn’t even seem to occur to Pinkerton that Butterfly’s feelings could be so strong because it is so far from what he perceives as the norm.
But Mr Brown’s impassioned performance suggests Butterfly’s feelings might, after all, be reciprocated. Perhaps Pinkerton did not realise this until his return to Butterfly’s home, or perhaps he imagined that while Butterfly might respond as he wished, he could not expect her feelings to be real.
In support of this interpretation is the presentation of Kate Pinkerton, here performed by Elaine Hayward. It is perhaps ungallant of me to mention this, and would not do so if it didn’t make such an interesting dramatic point, and I hope I might be forgiven for observing Kate Pinkerton is usually another young girl like Butterfly. In Miss Hayward’s interpretation, she seemed a little older than her husband. This contrasts strongly with the teenage Butterfly. Perhaps his choice of someone so completely different from Butterfly only highlights her unrealistic expectations: he might enjoy the occasional company of a child, but he wouldn’t want anything more than that. But again, Pinkerton’s reaction when he realises the strength of Butterfly’s feelings for him, and also his reaction to her death, show that he does care for her. And perhaps he chose Kate to be his wife – either consciously or unconsciously – because she was so different from Butterfly, with whom he could not have a conventional marriage.
Kate Pinkerton has little to do other than stand in the garden eavesdropping, and particularly in a large venue (all the more so as she always seems to wear a large hat – or appear as a silhouette as in the Royal Opera’s production), it is very difficult to see what she is feeling about Pinkerton’s first ‘marriage’. But Miss Hayward gave a very moving performance, and it was clear that to some extent the story was her tragedy, as well as Butterfly’s and Pinkerton’s. One very small quibble: when she walked in front of Butterfly’s house, she obstructed some of the action inside, but I am sure she would only have blocked the view of a very small percentage of the audience.
There was also a very fine performance from Tim Baldwin as Sharpless. Hairy McMungo psychically likened his performance to that of Thomas Allen, and I have to agree that, as usual, he is quite correct. Mr Baldwin is not only a good singer, but an excellent actor. He is never still onstage, always reacting in some small way to what is going on without ever stealing the limelight. Indeed, the first scene was actually humorous, as Pinkerton talks enthusiastically about Butterfly and America, and Sharpless silently expresses a feeling that perhaps Pinkerton’s monologue has gone on just a little bit too long. Mr Baldwin’s performance was subtle but very amusing, and even though Mr Brown was an unusually likeable Pinkerton, it was very easy to sympathise with Sharpless. Yet while Mr Baldwin has played a number of comic roles (I am rather hoping he will sing Dr Bartolo in Surrey Opera’s forthcoming production of Il barbiere di Siviglia), he is no less adept in the serious scenes. His abortive attempt to inform Butterfly of Pinkerton’s second marriage was most affecting.
There was also comedy from Rebecca Stockland as Suzuki – another very well-characterised performance – and Christopher Ovenden’s Goro was a marvellously odious individual, with Paul Hancock as an unsettling Bonze. Alexander Walford (also the language coach – the Italian diction was exceptionally clear) as Prince Yamadori, James Fisher as the Imperial Commissioner, Mark Edwards as Yakusidé, Nick George as the Official Registrar, Susan Watts as Butterfly’s Mother, Anita Green as Butterfly’s Aunt and Susan Low as Butterfly’s cousin singing well. The chorus of just six singers also sounded lovely. This was certainly one of the most delightful and interesting Butterflys I have ever seen.