New Devon Opera’s Madam Butterfly in the Top League

20/07/2012

Puccini, Madam Butterfly: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of New Devon Opera / Paul Foster (conductor), Theatre 1, Roland Levinsky Building, Plymouth University. UK 17.7. 2012 (PRB)

Cast:

Cio-Cio San: Susan Jiwey
Lt Pinkerton: Pietro Picone
Sharpless: Wyn Pencarreg
Suzuki: Alison Duguid
Goro: Stuart Haycock
Prince Yamadori: Stuart Boother
The Bonze: Oliver Gibbs
Kate Pinkerton: Adele Knox
Imperial Commissioner: Gareth Davies
Official Registrar: Adam Temple-Smith
Cio-Cio San’s Mother: Lindy Stephens
The Aunt: Jane Anderson-Brown
The Uncle Yakuside: Steve Brown
The Cousin: Denise Kehoe
Cookie: Stephen Grimshaw

Production:

Director: Martyn Harrison
Production Manager: Graham Wood
Designers: Martyn Harrison and Graham Wood
Lighting Designer: Bob Reed
Martial Arts Director: Stuart Boother

 

[L-R] Susan Jiwey (Cio-Cio San) Alison Duguid (Suzuki) Pietro Picone (Pinkerton) Credit Graham Wood

When well-known Plymouth baritone, Frederick Harvey, used to sing about ‘Devonshire cream and cider’ back in the 60s, he was referring to products of national, if not international repute emanating from almost the most south-westerly county in the UK, and some two hundred miles or so removed from the capital, London.

While New Devon Opera (NDO) has already notched up some highly-acclaimed performances since its formation in 2004, there has always been the risk of it being seen merely as a worthy protagonist, albeit at the local end of the market.

In fact nothing could be further from the truth with its current production, boasting an international cast led by Italian tenor, Pietro Picone as Pinkerton, and Susan Jiwey (of Portuguese and Iraqi descent) and Canadian-born Mariya Krywaniuk sharing the role of Cio-Cio-San.

There is certainly nothing remotely parochial about NDO, which comes complete with a twenty-one-piece pit orchestra, skilfully reduced from the original score by Paul Foster, both for the vital need to keep costs to a minimum, and to be small enough to be accommodated at each venue on the tour, often without a dedicated orchestral pit. Indeed, for one venue, there is just enough room for piano accompaniment only.

While Devonshire cream and cider are still highly-respected products today, Devonians themselves don’t have as much to sing about where their local football clubs are concerned, despite the popularity of the national game. But NDO’s quite superb production of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly really does put the county up there in the top league without a doubt.

The company once more chose to open its 2012 tour in Plymouth, a city more than twice the size of the county-town, Exeter, some forty-five miles east, but where one performance will be given later in the tour, at a dedicated theatre-venue, situated on the university campus. Theatre 1 at Plymouth University’s Roland Levinsky Building, is similarly an on-campus facility, but designed rather as a multi-purpose drama studio, with an unrewarding acoustic for music, essentially basic stage and lighting facilities, and no orchestral pit,

However, Martyn Harrison’s direction overcomes the venue’s limitations with a basic, yet totally adequate set, vivid costumes, and sufficient on-stage movement. Given today’s difficulties in casting a three-year-old child, the business involving a photo-frame ‘substitute’ provides a credible alternative, with certainly no loss of poignancy at the time.

But it’s the music, and ultimately the singing, that can really make or break this opera.

Jiwey’s Cio-Cio San is a class act, soaring effortlessly to the high notes, and singing with heartfelt-emotion throughout. Given that we are to believe that Cio-Cio San is a geisha of some mere fifteen years, Jiwey successfully makes us aware of this from the dramatic standpoint, despite the obvious physical limitations of their respective proportions.

Alison Duguid, as her maid, Suzuki, brings a fine, well-rounded voice to the part, and there was always such a clear dramatic and musical empathy between her and Butterfly. Her characterisation of the role so successfully showed her at one with Butterfly’s innocent dream that Pinkerton would return unfettered, while also so knowingly aware of what would, in fact be the opera’s tragic dénouement.

Despite an initial concern that the voice, albeit suitably Italianate in every way, might find difficult in projecting over the orchestra, Picone’s Pinkerton really grew in stature as the story unfolded, musically hitting all the right spots, too, and where the glorious delivery of the Act I Love Duet could surely not have left a dry eye in the house.

Wyn Pencarreg was an imposing, yet sensitive Sharpless, with another superb voice, finely complemented by Stuart Haycock’s necessarily fussy, yet equally well-sung Goro, providing just enough comedy at times, but always fully mindful of the complex social customs and niceties of polite Japanese society.

Oliver Gibbs (The Bonze) Credit Graham Wood

There were good strengths, too, in the minor roles. Oliver Gibbs cut a chilling Bonze, and Stuart Boother’s brief Martial Arts display, as the later-to-be-seen Prince Yamadori, given during the opening Act 1 symphony, proved an effective distraction, even if the sword’s tin-foil blade, no doubt a concession to Health and Safety, lest he accidentally decapitate one of the violinists sat rather close for comfort, didn’t quite convince.

Conductor, Paul Foster and his excellent orchestra, who rarely overpowered, despite effectively playing on the same level as the singers, were also integral to the success of this production. Even here, the necessary compromise to replace the often-important harp part with an electronic-keyboard alternative did not detract to any significant degree.

Madam Butterfly must surely be the company’s best production so far, a terrific credit to all those involved, and totally in line with NDO’s original mission statement ‘to become the UK South West Regions’ resident professional opera company’.

The downside, of course, is that this year’s offering will be a decidedly hard act to follow.

Philip R Buttall

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