Welsh Follow Sporting Success with Brilliant Puccini Performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, Frédéric Chaslin (conductor), Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno, 16.3.2013 (RJF) 

Cio-Cio-San. Cheryl Barker
Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton. Gwyn Hughes Jones
Goro. Philip Lloyd Holtam
Suzuki. Claire Bradshaw
Sharpless. Alan Opie
The Bonze: Julian Close
Prince Yamadori. Alastair Moor
Kate Pinkerton. Sian Menhir
Trouble. Jacob Adams

Original Director: Joachim Herz
Revival Director: Caroline Chaney
Set Designer: Reinhart Zimmermann
Costume Designer: Eleonore Kleiber
Lighting Designer: John Waterhouse
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris

His feet now well and truly under the table as Welsh National Opera’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director, David Pountney is showing his creative and artistic inventiveness, as well as economic acumen, in his selection of themed programmes for the company well into 2014. This spring 2013 series of operas, Lulu, The Cunning Little Vixen and Madama Butterfly are themed as Free Spirits. Next autumn’s tour is entitled Elizabethan Queens with all three of Donizetti’s trilogy of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux scheduled in a common set designed by Madeleine Boyd with two directors involved alongside three conductors. Also included in that season are performances of Tosca, which doesn’t quite fit into the title as some have suggested Madama Butterfly does not fit Free Spirits. Well, purists can have their view, but they do not have to balance the books. What was certain in the trio of works selected under this title, with three performances of Butterfly and one each of Lulu and Vixen, is an awareness as to what puts paying bums on seats and keeps the accountants happy. The alternative is to be seen at ENO with an increased accumulated deficit alongside falling attendances, whilst at Opera North acres of empty seats do not give succour to updated or concept productions with the chorus hidden from view rather than costumed and on stage where they belong. .

For me, the scheduling of three performances of Butterfly, two on the consecutive popular nights of Friday and Saturday, with the title role inevitably double cast, had unfortunate consequences. Detained by public duties in Manchester until Friday afternoon I could only manage to see Butterfly when I would normally see all the three operas presented. This was particularly galling when I dearly wanted to see Pountney’s revival of his early 1980s Vixen that I missed at the time. As I noted in my review of all three works in the autumn tour (see review) this careful balancing of revivals and shared productions allows for more exciting plans for the future at WNO as well as ensuring its future at a time when more cuts in Arts Council Grants are inevitable.

What a pleasure it was to once again see Reinhart Zimmermann’s evocative and realistic sets for this production. If Puccini could look down on this production without hearing the music he would instantly recognise what was being performed – not a common state of affairs in our opera houses these days. Since its premiere in 1978, and refurbished twenty years later, this production by the late Joachim Herz has seen many revivals. It is a bit like John Copley’s La Boheme at Covent Garden. It fits the opera to perfection. Whilst some of the London critics call for a change, the paying public take a different view: “If its not broken than don’t fix it.” This Butterfly production, with local Anglesey boy Gwyn Hughes Jones as the caddish Pinkerton, filled the Theatre Cymru to the gunnels. Given that Wales had beaten England at rugby just forty minutes before curtain up, many of the audience were in jovial spirits and a few were wearing their rugby shirts all set for a great end to the day. That is what they got in Caroline Chaney’s revival which and benefited from John Waterhouse’s wonderful lighting.

Puccini had first seen Belasco’s play in London in 1900 and after negotiations he set Madama Butterfly to music for its premiere at La Scala. It was his first premiere at that august address since the less than successful debut of Edgar in April 1889. More secure, and with thoughts of a great success, Puccini had all his family attend La Scala on the night of January 4th 1904. In the event the opera was a fiasco. He quickly withdrew the work with the composer and his publisher, Ricordi, returning their share of the first night’s proceeds, the substantial sum of twenty thousand lire, to La Scala. He quickly revised the work. His first revision included cuts and new music. It was received to great acclaim when premiered at Brescia, a town not far from Milan, on May 28th. Subsequently Puccini made more alterations and this production uses music from those revisions as well as restorations by Hertz.

At this performance Butterfly was sung by the Australian soprano Cheryl Barker who sang in the chorus of WNO thirty years or so ago. Since then she has made a considerable career in her homeland and widely in Europe as well as in several major roles at ENO. Her soprano is warm and womanly. There is no way her voice could portray the fifteen year old that Belasco wrote about any more than the many other sopranos who have sung the role, although some have tried to lighten their tone with little success except to be drowned by the orchestra. Given Puccini’s dense orchestration, particularly in Act One, a fuller voice is needed to ride the orchestra whilst also being able to portray Butterfly’s emotions in Act Two as she awaits, and then faces, the consequence of Pinkerton’s return. Cheryl Barker’s vocal and acted portrayal was particularly well nuanced and gave satisfaction to the packed audience. To the purist, her voice is a little heavy and a quick vibrato is more evident at the top of the voice, but unlike lighter sopranos she doesn’t have to shout. As her suitor, and example of the ultimate immoral Yank, Gwyn Hughes Jones sang with good tenor tone and acted both the cynical male in Pinkerton’s meeting with the Consul and also ardent lover of the end of act one with aplomb.

Claire Bradshaw as Butterfly’s maid was a fulsomely acted and sung portrayal. Whilst Butterfly assumed the religion of America, in dress and action, Suzuki maintained her Shinto faith and belief. The manner Claire Bradshaw portrayed and conveyed that faith was very firmly realised and is vitally important to the whole story, particularly to the final tragic denouement. For the role of Consul WNO had captured Alan Opie, Opera North’s Nabucco and Rigoletto, whilst the latter had acquired David Kempster, WNO’s Verdi baritone Luna and Iago for their Otello. With well-coloured and varied tone allied to a convincing acted assumption, WNO got the better deal. Notable among the lesser roles were the fussy well-acted portrayal of Goro by Philip Lloyd Holtam and the sonorous tones of Alastair Moor as an imposing Prince Yamadori, carried in and out on his sedan chair by two sturdy servants.

The conducting of Frédéric Chaslin was idiomatic. If he had experienced problems with the Theatre Cymru’s acoustic, like other conductors before him have, by this third performance he had learned well. His pacing, phrasing and above all, dynamic, served Puccini well with a pleasing balance between drama, orchestration and the singing voice.

There were many felicitous details in the production that reinforced my memory from the 2009 revival (See review). One new one was the delightful portrayal of the young child, I think Jacob Adams, as Precious, Butterfly’s child by Pinkerton. It was not just his acting during the performance, but the cute manner of his little jigs back from taking his bow that delighted an already happy audience as well as my wife and I.

More productions of this type, and as well cast, would do wonders at the box office of our opera companies who are losing too many battles for audience to cinema transmissions at a fraction of the seat price.

Robert J Farr

For another review of this opera see Madama Butterfly