Tuesday 14 October 2014

Opera Review: Madame Butterfly at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Opera Project first performed in the intimate setting of the Factory Theatre in 2003, and proved so popular that the company has been returning every autumn since with a fresh production. This year, they’ve chosen to stage Madame Butterfly, sung in English and with a new orchestration for 13 players.

Puccini’s popular masterpiece, first seen in 1904, is set in Nagasaki and tells the story of Cio-Cio-San, a 15-year-old geisha known as Butterfly. She weds the American naval officer Pinkerton for love, not realising he’s bought her as part of a match-maker’s package and that, for him, it’s a marriage of convenience.
Japanese laws of the time allowed for a husband’s absence, even for a month, to constitute divorce. In defying her family and stubbornly wishing to stay married, Butterfly finds herself abandoned and alone with a son Pinkerton isn’t even aware of.
Madame Butterfly is a deceptively simple tale of unrequited love, full of the emotions derived from Puccini’s richness of expression. Staging such an exotically imagined story on a small scale in the round focuses attention on the quality of musicality brought to the piece by Jonathan Lyness’s new arrangement.
The central role of Butterfly in this performance is sung by Stephanie Corley, although it is alternately taken by Catriona Clark. Corley’s soprano is rich in tone and her range is fluidly effortless. As her family’s outrage at her desertion of her ancestral religion is made clear by Julian Close’s terrifying portrayal of her uncle, she clearly expresses all of Butterfly’s growing love for John Pierce’s Pinkerton. Their duet after the wedding is full of tender hope for the future, even as Pinkerton knows he has no intention of staying with his new wife.
The intimacy of the setting only highlights the confines of Butterfly’s trapped existence, as she takes small, balletic steps around the central raised wooden dais which defines the corners of her world. Waiting and watching the harbour, Corley pours bittersweet longing into Butterfly’s aria of the beautiful day that she will see her husband’s ship returning. Comforted only by her maid Suzuki, sung by Miranda Westcott, their voices blend seamlessly as she believes that Pinkerton has returned to her and the house must be filled with all the flowers of the garden.
Craig Smith is imposing as the upstanding American consul Sharpless, horrified by Pinkerton’s dishonourable behaviour. Butterfly’s lonely vigil as she waits for her husband is emphasized by the wistful orchestration of the humming chorus.
Ultimately though, it’s Corley’s moving performance as the devastated and deserted wife, so close to the audience that we could reach out and comfort her, which brings home all the power and lyricism of Butterfly’s most unhappy of choices. The orchestration and staging may have been successfully pared back, but by the end of the evening it’s clear that there are no limits to the emotional intensity of this exhilarating production.
Runs until 25th October 2014. Photo: Farrows Creative

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