Period Productions with Superb Singing and Acting Like This Butterfly are Rare

08/03/2018

Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Martin Pickard (conductor). The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 6.3.2018. (RJF)

Anne Sophie Duprels (Butterfly & Merūnas Vitulskis (Pinkerton) (c) Richard H Smith

Cast:

Cio-Cio-San – Anne Sophie Duprels
Pinkerton – Merūnas Vitulskis
Sharpless – Peter Savidge
Suzuki – Ann Taylor
Goro – Joseph Shovelton
Kate Pinkerton – Katie Bird
Bonze – Dean Robinson
Prince Yamadori – Christopher Nairne

Production:

Director – Tim Albery
Set Designer – Hildegard Bechtler
Costume Designer – Ana Jebens
Lighting Designer – Peter Mumford

The history of opera performance is littered with first night failures that later became great successes. The most often quoted of such cases is that of Verdi’s La traviata with the most often forgotten being Madama Butterfly. The work is based on American impresario David Belasco’s play, which Puccini saw in London in 1900 and quickly recognized it as having potential for an opera libretto. His opera, of the same name, with libretto by his usual collaborators at that time, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, was premiered on February 17 in Milan 1904 and was a disaster and immediately withdrawn. After three months for a re-working, and structural changes and detailed orchestral re-working, it was a triumph in Brescia three months later. Julian Budden in his book, ‘Puccini, His Life and Works’ (Oxford University Press 2002 p 223 et seq), analyses the origins of the changes in the in the composer’s life at that time. His immersion into Japanese style was certainly essential to the later success and it is this facet that set designer Hildegard Bechtler and director Tim Albery build into this outstanding production.

I first saw the production in 2007 (review) and am pleased to report that the front screen shenanigans comparing American tarts with more demure Japanese women, that were also present in the 2011 and 2012 revivals, have bitten the dust. Indeed, the front of house drop that facilitated the opening dumb show could gainfully have followed that deletion, its emergence again for the suicide of Butterfly, and the arrival of Pinkerton to what had been the inside of their home, would have been more emotionally taut. That is perhaps to nit pick at a truly atmospheric staging to which is added the director’s innumerable felicitous details. Having recently had to sit through live or recorded performances of opera, where the director and designer have managed to ruin the composer’s intentions by updating and adding gimmicks not in the story, I was grateful to the staging that evokes and narrates the story with sensitive illumination. If John Copley’s Royal Opera La bohème could last from 1964 to 2017, I see no reason for Opera North to replace this production any time soon, even if the sexual exploitation of young girls is now seen somewhat differently than even a decade ago. If it works, and it does, outstandingly, don’t fix it!

The big question as to this revival is does it live up to the original and the 2011 and 2012 revivals. The answer is a resounding yes. Much of that is due to the presence of Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-San, Ann Taylor as Suzuki, and Peter Savidge as the fall guy Consul who tries his best to soften the blows that come to Butterfly. Duprels can no way realistically portray a fifteen-year-old, but then, no fifteen-year-old could sing the music Puccini wrote for the role! What Duprels does, however, is to feel and convey by her singing and acting a perfection that one rarely sees in an opera production where the soloists have to think of their every movement whilst conveying the nuance of the words and the emotion of the evolving situation. Her interpretation of this role, in acting as well as singing is world class and is worthy of the highest praise.

Ann Taylor’s and Peter Savidge’s ease and facility to convey the inner soul of the story by their singing and acting assist and complement Duprels’ wonderful interpretation. Taylor’s capacity to walk about like a foot strapped Japanese all evening is a wonder, as is her acted attitude of servility to her guests, and support from Butterfly, all whilst vocally conveying Suzuki’s personal feelings as the story evolves, is histrionic realisation of the highest calibre. The newcomer, Merūnas Vitulskis as Pinkerton is not overcome by the class of his colleagues and rises to the challenge with vocal certainty and pleasing phrasing and could meet Opera North’s need for a tenor in the Italian repertoire other than Rafael Rojas.

On the podium Martin Pickard is the match of Wyn Davies in 2007, winter 2012 and Daniel Rustioni in autumn 2011. There was a very full house on this occasion which made for an appreciative audience.

Robert J Farr

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