Review: Welsh National Opera's Madam Butterfly | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Welsh National Opera’s Madam Butterfly

Ruth Horsburgh is stunned by the Welsh National Opera's Madam Butterfly at the Birmingham Hippodrome

The imposing Hippodrome in Birmingham acted as a fitting setting for the Welsh National Opera’s production of Madam Butterfly. Director Joachim Herz’s Madam Butterfly was first seen over 35 years ago, and has enjoyed several revivals since then. His classic and uncomplicated style is obviously a winning formula.

Set in Nagasaki, as the story opens we are immersed in the preparations for forthcoming nuptials between Lieutenant Pinkerton of the United States Navy and a young, fifteen-year-old geisha Cio-Cio-San (Madam Butterfly). The celebratory atmosphere is soon dampened by the callous Pinkerton (well realised by Paul Charles Clarke), who confides to his friend, the American Consul, that he does not intend to stay with his new Japanese bride for long. He sees their marriage as a brief dalliance which will be easy to leave and will allow him to return to his preferred American traditions. This is in sharp contrast to the naive Cio-Cio-San who is whole-heartedly embracing her new role and is even prepared to convert to Christianity. 

This production was almost as beautiful to watch as it was to listen to

Cio-Cio-San played movingly by Linda Richardson, captured the innocence of an excitable young bride and also the anguish and despair at her later abandonment. We followed her roller coaster ride of emotions as we follow her through eager anticipation, brief joy, dejection, renewed hope and ultimate despair. Richardson’s rendition of the most famous ‘One Fine Day’ section was yearningly heartfelt, and she rightly received an appreciative round of applause.

Madam Butterfly is supported by Suzuki, the immensely loyal and protective servant who was excellently portrayed by Rebecca Afonwy-Jones. The optimistic decorating of the home in preparation for Pinkerton’s anticipated return emphasised the caring relationship between the two women. Sharpless, the American consul played by David Kempster, was an interesting character to see develop. Initially unsure of Japanese customs, he is charmed by Butterfly’s guileless innocence and is upset by what Pinkerton has done and by Butterfly’s demise. Sharpless’ inability to break the news of Pinkerton’s desertion of Butterfly was both entertaining, as he was constantly interrupted by a newly hopeful Butterfly, but also deeply moving. The revelation that Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton have a son together adds another poignant layer to the storyline as we witness Butterfly’s devotion to the young boy.

This production was almost as beautiful to watch as it was to listen to. This production was in Italian with useful surtitles to help to understand certain nuances in the storyline. Framed by delicate cherry blossom, the ingenious set consisted of a raised platform containing a series of partly transparent sliding doors. This created a great sense of depth and scale to the stage. This allowed for scene changes and character entrances and exits to flow. As one door opened, another seamlessly closed.  The costumes and surrounding set were of muted tones – almost like a faded photograph of a bygone era. The most effective costume was Cio-Cio-San’s stunningly simple white dress with long drop sleeves like delicate wings – evoking the symbolic link with her name. As she stood, with arms outstretched, against the transparent panels, she looked beautiful yet fragile – a butterfly sacrificed, pinned to a board. 

The raw, overwhelming emotional power stunned me

Puccini’s emotive score sometimes warned audiences of what was to come, and at other times shocked us– for example when Butterfly’s relatives denounce her for taking on American values, as she tries to make a success of her doomed marriage. The music complimented the action on the stage and soared in the story’s more rousing moments. The conductor Andrew Greenwood led his excellent musicians with expert precision and dexterity throughout.

As events drew to their dramatic conclusion, tissues rustled amongst the audience. There is a tragic inevitability about the story with several portents of what will come to pass, but the production was so striking and powerful, that the audience felt deeply moved by the final shocking scene. This led to rapturous applause, several encores and even a groundswell of appreciative boos as Clarke’s villainous Pinkerton took his bow.

Opera may not appear to be an obvious soundtrack for a student summer, yet in this production, the raw, overwhelming emotional power stunned me. A memorable feast for the senses.

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Second year English student.


1st July 2017 at 9:00 am

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