Madama Butterfly

Fri 4th – Sat 5th May 2012

reviews

Hyunwoo June Choo

at 09:59 on 5th May 2012

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A professional performance featuring the internationally acclaimed Ukrainian National Opera of Kharkiv, Ellen Kent’s conception of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly should have by all rights stirred the hearts of the audiences into a melancholic frenzy. But despite an evening of fine performance, there was not a single standing ovation in the finale. It was great, but it simply wasn’t charming.

Perhaps the acoustics of the New Theatre are to blame, but overall, much of the energy seemed to be confined within invisible walls surrounding the stage. Especially during the first act, the singers’ voices felt muffled, thwarting the feed-forward dynamic between the performers and the audiences critical for the viewers’ immersion with Madama Butterfly’s world. Another hindrance could have been the slightly less than strategic placement of captions which hovered at the very top of the stage—all throughout, my eyes busily saccaded away, trying to match the caption to its voice and to its contextual meaning. (To prevent neck pain, I suggest sitting near the back.)

By the second act, the flow of plot sweeps the theatre into sniffles. Madama Butterfly (Elena Dee), in face of ignominy and societal exclusion, marries Lieutenant F.B. Pinkerton (Andriy Perfilov), who is on a military duty from America. Pinkerton takes the marriage lightly and sees it as temporary company during his stay in Japan. Unlike Pinkerton, Madama Butterfly commits herself to marriage and remains faithful even in his absence, looking onto each day with the hope that he will return. The slow pace of the wait effectively amounts to draw out the tragedy of the climax, evoking much pathos for the poor protagonist.

The set is impressive: having filled my calendar with Burton Taylor productions, I was at first dazzled by the detail and grandeur of the painted Japanese blossom trees in the backdrop and the humble hut in the center stage, as well as the intricately colorful kimonos worn by the Japanese natives. In addition, a full orchestra accompanied the voices at the pit, conducted by Gheorghe Stanciu. The orchestra and the actors coordinated well, though at times the instruments buried the vocals in their intensity.

By the same token, it wasn’t charming, but it was great. The Korean opera singer Elena Dee carries herself with contained grace in idiosyncratically Japanese ways, and her Asian ethnicity befits the role comfortably. Above all, her range and raw vocal talent captures all attention, outshining her perfidious lover as well as the messenger, Sharpless US Consul (Vladimir Dragos). The star of the show, though, is Butterfly’s (literally) bouncing baby boy Sorrow (Georgiy Fominichenko) whose overwhelmingly adorable presence leaves the audience chuckling even on many sorrowful occasions. Overall, the cast was not unsuccessful in engaging the audience, but it could have been better.

I am still convinced that the New Theatre may not have done justice to their talent, and leaves me to wonder if their vocal capacity may have been better realized in a different venue, say, the Sheldonian.

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Daniel Malcolm

at 10:10 on 5th May 2012

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Madame Butterfly happens at a slower pace of life. On the back of a frenzied Oxford day, it took time to get the measure of this staid, and very traditional rendition of the opera. There's something very (stereotypically) Japanese about the way, the demur, and delicate, veneer of this production, masks for a long time the opera's tragic passion - an American naval officer's betrayal of his Japanese bride, Butterfly.

But the Yankee in this opera was stifled by politesse that did not become Lieutenant F B Pinkerton. Even when he put his outrageously swanky white shoes on the ornate garden table, there was an air of apology rather than the swagger of ownership. And his obnoxious comparisons of his lease of the house to his marriage to Butterfly (contractually equivalent) were less abrasively American than the brash-brass of the star-spangled-banner theme, which becomes his motif.

The production was perhaps offering a sympathetic portrayal of Pinkerton - as a weak and self-indulgent man - remorseful even before he marries Butterfly, but too spineless to resist her charms. But I'm not sure this comes off - and at times he comes out a characterless waxwork, particularly in his bust-up with Butterfly's colourful, stage-thumping, uncle.

The opera really only spreads its wings when Pinkerton goes abroad, and the stage is left to Butterfly. Fragrance floats out from a censor burning on stage, and the strings shimmer in the pit, as for the first time Elena Dee's beautiful voice, fluttering with tender hope, really moves you. She gazes desperately out to sea; her enamoured gaze blinded to Pinkerton's infidelity. At last, the static-ness on stage is more than overdone ceremony. All that changes on the long night of Pinkerton's return are the rich hues of the sumptuous stage sky; but the frozenness of the scene involves you in the forlorn vigil of Butterfly, delicately silhouette behind the screen of her "paper house".

The tension of her long second-half wait is only relieved by the real star of the show - Butterfly's child, who pranced exuberantly about stage, scattering petals to the audience's delight; his oblivious and spontaneous joy contrasted perfectly with the anxious moodiness of Butterfly.

The closing scene was symptomatic of this production's slight sentimental over-indulgence. After the shock of Butterfly's disturbingly picturesque (screened) suicide - struck home by the biting crash of symbols - a despairing Pinkerton rushes on stage to craddle Butterfly's, now crimson, neck in his arms. But then the emotional power of the scene, joltingly action-packed after what came before, leaks away, as the curtain, ever-so-slowly descends on Pinkerton's sobs. This opera lingered just a bit too long. Perhaps if it had moved faster, it would have moved more.

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