WNO's Madame Butterfly cast. Pictures: Jeremy Abrahams

Madam Butterfly

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


This production might be 39 years old but it is still as fresh as the cherry blossom of Nagasaki in springtime which says much for the original staging by its celebrated director, the late Joachim Herz.

As the old adage goes, if it ain’t broke . . . and revival director Sarah Crisp has done a fine job of polishing and refreshing this opera classic, a mainstay of any company worth its salt.

 Butterfly is all about a sad story, which has its basis in truth, of love and betrayal carried along by Puccini’s glorious music and Reinhart Zimmermann’s now venerable but elegant set does nothing to detract from that.

The plot is simple; US naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton, sung by Liverpool born tenor Paul Charles Clarke, has been posted to Japan where, taking advantage of Japan’s looser laws on marriage and divorce, he decides to take a wife for his stay, intending to dump her when he leaves and then find a good American wife back in the USA. Charming chap.

Now if you dislike the man when he tells you that, you start to positively despise him when he rents a house on a hill overlooking the harbour and dispenses with the names of the two servants and his wife-to-be’s maid Suzuki, calling them instead Mug one, two and three. So we know who the baddy is from the off.

And it has all been arranged by Goro the smarmy, bowler-hatted marriage broker sung by Yorkshire tenor Simon Crosby Buttle, while the American Consul Sharpless, sung by Welsh baritone David Kempster, coming up to 10 years with WNO, urges caution, warning the bride to be, Cio-Cio-San, is taking the marriage as a serious proposition, not something to prove a few home comforts for a few months. Sadly Sharpless is rather hopeless, a kindly chap, but hardly dynamic or persuasive enough to influence Pinkerton’s arrangements of little more than renting a wife for his stay.

Which brings us to the wife, Cio-Cio being Japanese for butterfly, 15-years-old, innocent and so excited to be marrying an American she has even converted to Christianity.

butterfly, Suzuki and Sharpless

Karah Son  as Cio-Cio-San, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones as Suzuki and David Kempster Sharpless in an earlier performance

And Butterfly presents a problem for opera companies in that 15-year-old opera singers do not, and certainly should not exist, indeed singers are in their later twenties and beyond before the strength, training, vocal maturity and stamina needed for operatic lead roles has been reached. So it is a question of finding a singer who does not raise amused eyebrows in the audience too much when she sings that she is 15, and in Cheshire born Linda Richardson WNO have found such a performer.

Her voice control is admirable whether in soft sustains or the powerful crescendos in one of the most well-known arias in opera, Un bel dì vedremo (One fine day).

In Il cannone del porto! (The Flower Duet) the duet with her maid Suzuki, a lovely performance from excellent Welsh mezzo-soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones incidentally, the harmony was a delight and the subsequent aria gave reign to the clear power of her splendid voice.

It is a voice that is easy on the ear, quiet or commanding, capable of great tenderness or moving emotion, and one that blends well with other voices, as for instance, in the long series of duets with Clarke’s Pinkerton which bring Act I for a close.

We all know this ain’t going to end well – after all it is opera where heroines routinely chuck themselves off battlements or die of consumption in Paris garrets, so survival chances for leading ladies are limited.

So when Pinkerton returns from the US three years later with his new wife, Kate, sung by Welsh mezzo-soprano Sian Meinir, tragedy is looming and comes even closer when Butterfly produces her, and Pinkerton’s son, Trouble – who certainly is living up to his name in this particular love triangle.


Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San and Leo Adams as son Trouble in an earlier performance of the current tour 

Pinkerton offers to take the son to raise as his own, promising a better life than Butterfly can hope to offer, but it will leave her with nothing but shame.

In the final scene she sings a moving farewell to her son and then reads the inscription on her father’s ceremonial tantou knife, Who cannot live with honour must die with honour and the die is cast.

Zimmermann’s setting is Pinkerton’s rented house on the hill, a traditional Japanese affair with sliding paper panels in gleaming white, backlit to provide silhouettes for added interest, standing out like a beacon from the rest of the stage which is filled above and on either side with a latticework of branches and leaves in autumnal shades which gives a warm, golden hue to everything.

As operas go the chorus is relatively small, all Butterfly’s friends and relatives to the wedding, although they do a fine job with The Humming Chorus at the end of Act II, a scene I have never been sure of; there is little happening on stage for three minutes or so until the curtain falls apart from Trouble going to sleep as Butterfly waits for Pinkerton to return, still it is a lovely piece to listen to and it allows your thoughts to drift.

As we have come to expect the WNO Orchestra under conductor Andrew Greenwood are once again first class and produce a confident and pleasing interpretation of Puccini’s well known score to round off a splendid night of excellent opera.

Roger Clarke


Welsh National Opera perform Die Fledermaus at Birmingham Hippodrome on 27 June, Madame Butterfly again on 28 and 29 June and finally Der Rosenkavalier on 1 July. 

A second opinion


THIS classic Puccini opera tells the heartbreaking story of a young Japanese girl’s arranged marriage to an American naval officer who turns out to be a bit of a cad with no intention of making it a long term arrangement.

It was impressively performed by the hugely talented WNO, with the cast in sepia costumes and the clever set in similar shades, but what really gripped the audience was the quality of the singing, especially by the leads.

And it’s the voices people have gone to hear, so the fact that Cheshire-born Linda Richardson hardly resembled a 15-year-old Japanese geisha was no hindrance. Playing Cio-Cio-San (Madam Butterfly), she sang quite beautifully, particularly in the famous love duet at the end of the first act, and later with One Fine Day as she hopes for the return of her lover.

Linda perfectly reflected at first the naïve dreams of the beautiful teenager and, subsequently, her desperation at the realisation that Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton will not be returning permanently to her and their blue-eyed toddler son, Sorrow, three years after sailing out of Nagasaki harbor.

The final scenes were heart-breaking as Cio-Cio-San faces a life-or-death decision on meeting Pinkerton’s American bride who is prepared to take Sorrow back for a new life in the States.

A powerful performance, too, from Paul Charles Clarke as the cheating sailor, seeing his marriage to the geisha as no more than an amusing diversion during his Japanese posting, thoroughly deserving the applause and even boos as the cast took their bows.

Rebecca Afonwy-Jones shone as Butterfly’s servant, Suzuki, and David Kempster had the ideal bearing and splendid voice as the American consul, Sharpless, who warned Pinkerton that Butterfly was taking the relationship so seriously and the dangers his casual attitude might create.

The WNO orchestra, conducted by Andrew Greenwood, excelled throughout in a delightful opera, directed by Joachim Herz.

Paul Marston 

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