Madame Butterfly at the E. M. Forster Theatre

Review by “Barry Tone” from the E. M. Forster Theatre:

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.

Russell’s Theatre Reviews wrote:

Anyone who knows me knows that “I Don’t Do Opera”. It’s an art form that I’ve never really got into. But when a nice lady from Surrey Opera emailed me and offered me two free tickets in return for an ad on this site and a review, I thought “There’s a credit crunch on, after all” and looked up the times of the trains to Tonbridge. Unfortunately, Him Indoors had got wind of the fact that Tonbridge High Street is Charity Shop Heaven so, once we’d paid the bus and train fares, purchased three bags full of assorted junk, and been fleeced in Wetherspoons (never, ever eat in a chain pub if you can avoid it), I don’t think we saved that much. Particularly as the free tickets didn’t include a free programme. Still, it was a very good night out and made a nice change from slobbing in front of the TV watching Total Wipeout and eating monkey nuts. Speaking of which,

“How are the monkeys?”

“Oh, they’re fine, but we had to put the kangaroo down this morning. Arthritis, you know”.

is not something I suspect is often heard in the hallowed precincts of the E. M. Forster Theatre, or indeed anywhere, but the group of upper class yobs sitting, and standing, and lying, and kneeling all over the seats immediately behind us carried on their conversations at such a high decibel level that I’m sure the entire audience heard it. The entire audience also probably heard them coughing, rattling their bags, changing seats with each other during the performance, talking during the orchestral intermezzo and hawhawhawing loudly at anything that their smutty little minds could twist into a sexual reference.

The day before, while attending a rehearsal for La Cenerentola (being performed at the Spa Theatre, Bridlington next week by Oyster Opera – book your tickets now and no, they haven’t offered me a freebie in return for a review, which is a shame because its Bloody Good), and discussing Butterfly it was mooted that “You can’t really do anything wrong with Puccini. It’s so good it stages itself”. This clearly was not the view of the director, who “updated” the Nagasaki setting from the late 19th century to 1950 – even though Nagasaki was practically bombed out of all existence in 1945. Would, therefore, the residents be quite so pleased to welcome an American warship into the harbour and carry on with “their incessant and enthusiastic experimentation with American style and fashion”? I think not. This updating also meant that Pinkerton wore a modern suit and therefore totally lost his identity as an American naval officer, that CioCioSan wore a 50s “New Look” dress for Act II and that the chorus wore a strange mix of kimonos and modern dress. Very odd, both in concept and the overall look, as was the fact that, although CioCioSan is referred to as a geisha and therefore rightly dressed and made up as one, the entire chorus (and the minor Japanese characters) all wore white face makeup, which brings the whole thing down to the level of The Mikado. And if you are going to do this, for pity’s sake get a responsible member of the chorus to check everyone’s make up and ensure its all the same degree of whiteness – some of the chorus looked like Marcel Marceau and others looked like they were merely in the process of recovering from a dose of flu. A good Oriental base make up and a bit of eye shadow would have been far more effective and far more realistic.

“This is SUCH a contrast for us. We went to see He’s Really Not That Into You this afternoon hawhawhaw. How many bits are there in this thing? I didn’t really get the bit with the tie.”

I did. It’s a symbol of Western dress and therefore of Westernisation. But by golly was it used to the point of overkill – to the point where Acts II and III seemed to be becoming “The Tie Acts”. First it was hanging with Pinkerton’s shirt on the inside of the door of the fridge (don’t ask). Then it was used as a blindfold, then a sash. Then Sorrow got to wear it. Then it was a blindfold again. I did begin to wonder whether the ending had been rewritten to have CioCioSan hang herself with it. Thankfully we were spared this. But not before it had been used to point up every conceivable metaphor and I was sick of it. It even turned up as part of the picture on the front of the programme. Overkill!

Lighting, the bete noire of the touring company, was a little shaky at the start, with a few nasty dark spots on the stage, but improved considerably throughout the performance. Him Indoors has asked me to mention that the cyc (backcloth to you and me) was particularly competently lit for the entire evening.

“I live in Oxford. Well, that’s not really true. I’m studying to be a vicar at Oxford. Gosh, the acoustic in here is really dry”.

If it was (can an acoustic be dry?), this didn’t seem to bother either the orchestra pit or the stage. A relatively huge orchestra of 25 (two flutes, two clarinets, two trumpets but, regrettably, no second trombone) gave it considerable welly for the entire evening under the very capable baton of Jonathan Butcher. Pit and stage only parted company once all night, but was quickly rescued. Male chorus, surprisingly, noticeably better than female chorus. Among the supporting cast, the gong goes to Christopher Ovenden for an outstandingly sung and acted Goro, with Honourable Mention to Tim Baldwin as Sharpless. Apologies to Elaine Howard who took the very small role of Kate Pinkerton; vocally adequate she may have been but was far too old to be convincing. Although on for only minutes, she was left awkwardly and completely abandoned on the side of the stage by the director, who should also have vetoed the Posh Spice sunglasses.

In the principal stable I thought Rebecca Stockland sung the role of Suzuki much better than she acted it. I know it’s a difficult and often thankless part - Butterfly gets all the big tunes and all the emoting whereas Suzuki just gets to be solid and dependable – but more could have been made of the part, particularly in the closing scenes. Admittedly, her costume looked odd, uncomfortable and neither fish nor fowl in aesthetic terms which cannot have helped; it would have been better, I think, to have dressed her in a black kimono like most of the ladies chorus. Stephen Brown threw out top notes confidently, without any apparent effort and like they were going out of fashion, damn his hide (sorry, bit of tenor jealousy there!) but, again, was not best served by his costumes. Rebecca Cooper pulled out all the stops vocally in the incredibly demanding title role and was Pretty Darned Impressive, although I personally think One Fine Day needs more vocal light and shade than it was given at this performance. Mind you, she still managed to pull my heart up into my throat and squeeze a couple of tears out of these cynical old eyes while performing it. And that’s pretty good going for someone who “Doesn’t Do Opera”.

Thank you, Surrey Opera, for the very enjoyable evening. Shame the audience wasn’t as enjoyable - but at least the kangaroo is spared the misery of being brayed at any more.