United Kingdom Puccini, Madama Butterfly: (Revival Premiere) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Frédéric Chaslin (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 15.2.2013 (GPu)
Cio-Cio-San: Cheryl Barker
Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton: Gwyn Hughes Jones
Goro: Philip Lloyd Holtam
Suzuki: Claire Bradshaw
Sharpless: Alan Opie
Cio-Cio San’s Cousin: Helen Greenaway
Cio-Cio-San’s Mother: Emma Mary Llewellyn
Yakuside: George Newton-Fitzgerald
Cio-Co-San’s Aunt: Carolyn Jackson
The Imperial Commissioner: Stephen Wells
The Official Registrar: Jack O’Kelly
The Bonze: Julian Close
Prince Yamadori: Alastair Moor
Kate Pinkerton: Sian Menhir
Cio-Cio-San’s Nephew: Daniel Biasizza
Trouble: Jacob Adams
Servant and Cook: Derek Tilley and David Tilley
Original Director: Joachim Herz
Revival Director: Caroline Chaney
Set Designer: Reinhart Zimmermann
Costume Designer: Eleonore Kleiber
Lighting Designer: John Waterhouse
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris
Since its premiere in 1978 the late Jochen Herz’s production of Madam Butterfly has done sterling service with Welsh National Opera, being revived repeatedly. I have seen it in several incarnations and reviewed it twice in recent years, in 2007 and 2009. The sliding screens of Reinhart Zimmermann’s set serve all of the action well, without the need for ponderous changes, thus avoiding any disruption of Puccini’s sense of dramatic pace – a sense arrived at after lengthy doubt, difficulty and revision. The version used in this production is, in the words of the programme “based on the first, second and third versions of Puccini’s opera, devised by Joachim Herz [with] additional sections of music restored by Joachim Herz and edited by Julian Smith”. And how very well it works!
The only puzzle is that David Poutney has chosen to schedule the work alongside Lulu and The Cunning Little Vixen in a season under the title ‘Free Spirits’. Unlike Lulu or the Vixen, Cio-Cio-San is far more obviously trapped, imprisoned, than she is in any sense free. Even before the events of the opera begin she has evidently had her freedom of choice limited by her formerly wealthy family’s descent into poverty. Her one act of choice – the marriage to Pinkerton is surely conditioned rather more by the desperation and necessity of a fifteen-year old with no prospects than by the exercise of a ‘free spirit’, and by making it she finds herself in another form of imprisonment, between two cultures, to neither of which she truly belongs and each of which, in their different ways rejects her. The failures of perception, the self delusions which characterise both Cio-Cio-San and, to a lesser degree, Pinkerton are embodied metaphorically in the screens of Reinhart Zimmermann’s set which play games with the seen and the unseen, with concealment and revelation as well as with wilful not-seeing.
Neither of the leading singers in this latest version of the now venerable production is blessed with an especially beautiful voice. But both Cheryl Barker and Gwyn Hughes Jones are experienced operatic interpreters, who can use their voices very effectively in the delineation of character and the evocation of emotion. Gwyn Hughes Jones articulates Pinkerton’s ready callousness and coarse insensitivity in Act I but also makes us believe that Pinkerton (at least momentarily) believes what he sings (and promises) in the love duet which closes the act. Cheryl Barker can’t, reasonably enough, make us believe that her Cio-Cio-San is a mere fifteen at the time of the marriage, but she persuades one of the associated naivety and self-delusion, and persuades us to understand it and sympathise with it. The ease with which Claire Bradshaw’s rather stern Suzuki sees through Pinkerton acts as an effective foil at this point. The paradoxes of fragility and strength set up in the libretto which Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa prepared for Puccini (paradoxes of which Zimmermann’s set again acts as a metaphorical representation) unfold very effectively in Barker’s embodiment of Cio-Cio-San’s futile resilience and delusional loyalty in Act Two, a performance genuinely moving and winningly intimate.
Alongside Barker and Hughes Jones there are a number of convincing, memorable cameos. Philip Lloyd Holtam’s Goro is painfully obsequious, a man ready and eager to serve as a pimp for his entire culture, not just its young girls. Alan Opie’s Sharpless is a dignified and pained presence, well sung and properly ashamed of Pinkerton’s behaviour and all that it says of American attitudes towards the Japanese. Julian Close’s Bonze is a striking cameo of almost hysterical fury – a commanding presence in voice, manner and stature alike. Throughout, in ways not easy to delineate precisely – they include stage groupings, whom characters look at and whom they ignore, and the like – Caroline Chaney’s version of Herz’s production makes it less simply anti-American and more complex in its account of cultural misunderstandings and their personal consequences.
The chorus of WNO contribute as effectively as they almost always do, and the playing of the orchestra under the baton of Frédéric Chaslin is eminently satisfactory, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the recent Lulu conducted by Lothar Koenigs. The whole makes for a fine and moving evening’s theatre and this production has, one suspects, some mileage in it yet.