Via Ukraine, Ellen Kent highlights the inherent drama of Madama Butterfly

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kyiv / Vasyl Vasylenko (conductor). Cliffs Pavilion, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, 5.5.2024. (JPr)

Director – Ellen Kent
Company manager and Stage director – Victor Donos
Lighting designer/Operator – Valeriu Cucarschi
Chorus mistress – Kateryna Kondratenko-Savienkova

Cio-Cio San – Alyona Kistenyova
Pinkerton – Davit Sumbadze
Sharpless – Vitalii Cebotari
Suzuki – Natalia Matveeva
The Bonze – Valeriu Cojocaru
Goro – Yevhenii Vaskiv
The Commissioner – Daniil Buchka
Prince Yamadori – Nicolae Cebanu
Kate Pinkerton – Anastasiia Blokha
Sorrow – Frankie Phillips

2024 is the centenary of the death of composer Giacomo Puccini and there is no shortage of performances of Madama Butterfly. Amongst many others, there have already been high profile performances at Covent Garden and the Met; with the opera also due to take flight in all corners of the world this year. One of the best must have been Ellen Kent’s recent Madama Butterfly whose 42nd (!) and final performance of its Spring tour took place at the Cliffs Pavilion.

I wrote recently how Kent’s Carmen (review here) ‘provides a thoroughly enjoyable night at the opera for audiences as it continues its UK tour, and the tickets prices are also very reasonable. It is a good, honest, entertaining attempt at doing all it needs to do – tell the story clearly, allow the singers to do their best and make good use of the space available.’ Sometimes ‘enjoyable’ can be a debatable word for stories where one woman is brutally murdered by an abusive ex-lover and now, in Butterfly, a barely pubescent girl is sexually exploited, made pregnant, deserted, betrayed and dies by her own hand. Let’s also not forget that we have all the vainglorious toasting in Butterfly – however ironic Puccini might intentionally or otherwise have been – to the greatness of the America!

Since both the recent New York and London performances abandoned much of the well-publicised criticism of Madama Butterfly’s Orientalism (where Eastern cultures are portrayed through a Western eyes), there cannot be any disapproval now of having Puccini’s Japanese characters portrayed by white performers. Indeed, the extremely informative souvenir brochure goes to great pains to explain how Puccini ‘spent his Butterfly period almost turning himself Japanese, researching the country’s native folk melodies, attempting to capture the pattern of Japanese intonation, and exploring the sonorities offered by a host of the percussion family’s ever-expanding numbers. The results are a constantly shifting chiaroscuro of local colours: a truly haunting score’. Indeed it is!

The curtain rises and we are clearly – as we should be – in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1904. We will watch Cio-Cio San (from the Japanese for Butterfly) marry Pinkerton, a US naval officer. She is in love, whilst at first he is in lust, and although his feelings deepen during the first act, especially when she is shunned by her family for changing her religion, Pinkerton still quickly abandons her (not knowing she is carrying his child) to return home and marry an American woman.

Ellen Kent’s Madama Butterfly

Ellen Kent’s ultra-traditional production is vibrantly colourful: (of course) there is much cherry blossom and permanently centre stage of an evocative Japanese garden – with the tinkling sound of water – is a minka, a Japanese house with sliding paper doors. They are used with great effect to allow striking silhouettes which illustrate certain significant moments of the unfolding drama. (Though no attempt is made to show the ‘American home’ Cio-Cio San suggests she has created for Pinkerton in Act II.) Equally stunning are the elaborate, often pastel-shaded costumes (including as the publicity suggests ‘antique wedding kimonos from Japan’) for the fan-wielding chorus, which contrast with Cio-Cio San in pure white.

Alyona Kistenyova’s portrayal of the tragic heroine grew as the opera proceeded and she acted very spiritedly always trying to be true to the character; and it was almost possible to think of her as the teenage (15-year-old) Cio-Cio San. Her singing gained in warmth after her entrance and displayed a cultured artistry, with elegant tone and exquisite phrasing. The depth of her character’s vulnerability and despair was plain to see during the second act which was where Kistenyova was at her dramatic best.

In his thankless role as the villain Pinkerton – thankless also because you know British audiences will boo him in pantomime-fashion regardless of how well the singer sings – as a good as Davit Sumbadze’s Don José was in Carmen he was superb as Pinkerton. Sumbadze has a robust tenor voice and stentorian top notes allied to moments of innate lyricism. How good too was the rich mezzo-soprano voice of Natalia Matveeva as Suzuki (Cio-Cio San’s fearful maid) and Vitalii Cebotari’s eloquent baritone as Nagasaki’s similarly concerned US consul, Sharpless. They were very well supported by Yevhenii Vaskiv (the avaricious marriage-broker Goro), Valeriu Cojocaru (as Cio-Cio San’s uncle, the Bonze, who curses her), Nicolae Cebanu (as the wealthy Prince Yamadori willing to marry the deserted Cio-Cio San) and Anastasiia Blokha (as Kate, Pinkerton’s American bride).

The company singing the Ukrainian National Anthem at the Cliffs Pavilion

Reiterating some of what I wrote in the Carmen review: it was so very poignant to see everyone remain on their feet – most had given the opera a standing ovation at the end anyway – for the Ukrainian National Anthem ringing out through the auditorium of the Cliffs Pavilion. Once again, it was a moving moment of collective support for that country’s ongoing struggles. Under the banner of the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre Kyiv, a multinational cast of principals, an extremely valiant, yet modest-sized, chorus and orchestra – all more than adequate to their tasks – did Madama Butterfly and Puccini proud. From first notes till the last ones, Vasyl Vasylenko (artistic director of the Opera and Ballet Theatre Kyiv) conducted with brisk tempi, pliancy and to make the most of all the emotional highlights in Puccini’s inherently dramatic score.

Jim Pritchard

Find information about future Ellen Kent tours by clicking here.

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