Welsh National Opera, Cardiff (and touring)
Dates of run: Feb 10-April 29
Running time: 2 hours 39 minutes, including interval
Director: Sarah Crisp
Cast includes: Jonathan Burton, Simon Crosby Buttle, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, David Kempster, KarahSon, Meriel Andrew, Monika Sawa, George Newton-Fitzgerald, Martin Lloyd, Jack O’Kelly, Richard Wiegold, Alastair Moore, Sian Meinir, Carolyn Jackson
After the 1904 premiere of Madame Butterfly, a tough Milanese audience accused Puccini of sentimentality and dismissed his heart-breaking story of a U.S.-Japanese culture clash as a mere operetta.
Puccini complained that, like his poor heroine, he had drunk from “the bitter cup” and proceeded to extensively revise a work he said was sincerely felt.
The Welsh National Opera version established in the 70s by director Joachim Herz, on the basis of meticulous research, and now directed by Sarah Crisp, delivers pure emotion with devastating directness.
The critique of imperialism, underlined by Reinhart Zimmermann’s beautiful sepia design, takes on an added piquancy when we have a U.S. president who seems to be as cavalier with the truth and unfeeling towards non-American cultures as the villain of the piece: Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who happens to be named after a founding father of the United States and its ethical code.
His crime is to embrace what seems to him the convenient flexibility of a Japanese marriage contract. He interprets it to mean a bond supposedly for ever can be broken in a month.
The tragedy and the irony is that his Butterfly embraces what she sees as the American view that a marriage is an earnest undertaking only ended through formal negotiations in a court – or through death.
The emotional omens are terrible from the start. David Kempster, as a comparatively honourable U.S. Consul, tries to warn Pinkerton from breaking a butterfly. Pinkerton (Jonathan Burton) just stands casually by, smoking a cigar, while his Butterfly (Karah Son) in her first appearance is already singing her heart out just for him.
Her role is outstandingly dominant and Son is outstanding as a singer and actor. We feel every heartbeat of her protracted agony as she waits through the years and then through one last night, silhouetted against the paper screens of her Japanese house, filled with cherry blossom.
Anyone who, like the early audiences, feels the need to quarrel with such a powerfully moving production could argue the moral asymmetry between Butterfly and Pinkerton is too extreme.
But even they might be placated by the moments of humour as the U.S. national anthem creeps into the score and Butterfly, when welcoming the Consul to her “American household” asks him with touching, Japanese concern: “Are all your ancestors well?”
The ovations are all for her. Burton, despite his rich singing, gets a friendly boo from an audience that cannot applaud his morals.
His finest moment is as he flings the paper screens aside, passionately making his way to the bridal chamber on his wedding night after a transcendent love duet. Unfortunately, the emotion is nothing more enduring than passing desire.
Apart from the raptures for Son, we also hail Butterfly’s loyal servant Suzuki, sung with fire by Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and David Kempster as the urbane, well-intentioned Consul.
Barbara Lewis © 2017.