Barker shines as tragic butterfly

Cheryl Barker  15-year-old Cio-Cio-San - Madam Butterfly - and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Lieutenant Pinkerton. Pictures: Jenni Clegg

Madam Butterfly

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

HOW many operas do we know about child abuse?  

Rather a lot, actually. The Turn of the Screw (which probably isn't); Billy Budd (maybe); A Midsummer Night's Dream (some would say); Wozzeck (though the abandoned child symbolises the future); Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande (parental jealousy, manipulation; Gluck's Iphigenia; Handel's Jeptha.  

More recently, there's Theodorakis' Antigone; or Benoit Mernier's opera Spring Awakening (after Wedekind: the play and Musical versions were recently reviewed on these pages; every child is emotionally wrecked – by parents, teachers, life.

And in Verdi's A Masked Ball, just who is the king's page, Oskar? 

In which case, Madam Butterfly, on modern perceptions, is surely up with the best of them. If it were set in today's Bangkok, Pinkerton would be banged up for doing it with a minor (so would numerous French or English medieval monarchs).  

He wouldn't have got as far as his steel-plated warship, to sail away amid bursts of The Star Spangled Banner (which Puccini uses to constant ironic effect in the opera); he would have been in Thailand's equivalent of Wormwood Scrubs. 

Times, and manners, change. This masterpiece is not about age abuse, though that enters significantly into it; but about senseless emotional cruelty. The Japanese girl Cio-Cio San (chocho means ‘Butterfly') is lulled into trusting her new American legitimate spouse, by whom she conceives – unbeknown to him – a son, unaware of his callous intention to leave her.  

When Pinkerton, the feckless U.S. naval Lieutenant, remarries back home (virtual, though perhaps not paperwork, bigamy), then claims the son and abandons her finally, she kills herself with the blindfolded child still on stage.

Cheryl Barker as Madame Butterfly "gives an acutely sensitive, touching, understanding reading of the role"

The poignancy of Butterfly's music throughout, but above all in this scene of hara-kiri (she does it with a knife in traditional style), is some of the best music Puccini wrote; which is saying something. 

This revived WNO production, by Joachim Herz, dubbed ‘classic and sepia', was adequate. It went through the motions. The story was told, without banal visual distractions, in a traditional and generally pleasing way. Boxes were ticked, the Hippodrome audience was content. 

But to my eyes, it was mind-numbingly dull. The rather fine set apart (Reinhart Zimmermann: a series of see-through Japanese or oriental doors, engineered to suggest rooms and alcoves and balconies, levels and possible distant views) there was next to no invention, no special insight into personality, or motives, or context. The costumes (Eleonore Kleiber: you will detect a triple Germanic input) were all suffuse, a kind of neutral brown: a robustly defensible idea, but adding implacably to the overall plainness and flavourless feel.  

Herz's movement of the principals, such as Butterfly's officious, intrusive marriage fixer and chaperone Goro (the capable but stolid Phillip Lloyd Holtam), seemed nearly devoid of direction; that of the chorus, fluttering meaninglessly in groups that had no imaginative blocking or impact at all, made me think the unthinkable: that many pro-am societies could have done this just as well.  

Part-time ensembles like Dorset Opera or Kentish Opera, companies with really energetic production values, would effortlessly have matched, and probably bettered, this. It looks rather like one of those tired half-century-old survivals from the less adventurous operatic regimes in former Eastern Europe.    

The tiredness was debilitating. This Butterfly has gone through not one but several revivals, and even the Royal Opera House can flag at the third or fourth attempt. It needs a really cracking revival director, like ENO's David Ritch, to re-energise a staging and maintain its visual pace and punch. 

So thank goodness for the singing, which was jolly good. Names to conjure with: Julian Close, the vocally outstanding still young bass-baritone, whose fabulous ringing tones made a massive impact as Butterfly's indignant uncle the Bonze (nominally a Japanese Buddhist priest). Close was born to play Verdi's Grand Inquisitor or Wagner's Fafner. His Water Goblin (in Dvorak's Rusalka) was out of this world. Not the greatest of actors, perhaps (he flailed a little as the Gorilla in Berg's Lulu at the Hippodrome the night before), he has extraordinary magnetism. The searching eyes penetrate. The voice is to die for.     

Or the delightful Suzuki (‘Little bell'), Butterfly's companion, ever-present, but equally incapable of stopping the life-sapping progress of events: in a sense, Suzuki is our set of eyes. But she also provides that special, deeply pathos-ridden second female role, like Liu in Turandot. As Suzuki Claire Bradshaw, trustworthy and reliable in every role she is assigned, brought no overwhelmingly memorable or distinctive vocal timbre; but she sang beautifully, acted cogently, and impressed. 

Cio-Cio San with Alan Opie as the American Consul Sharpless

The same goes for Butterfly herself (Cheryl Barker). One has to suspend belief when a somewhat matronly older woman (Barker's understudy/replacement is Judith Howarth) wimpers ‘I'm only fifteen'; in the Joan Sutherland era or earlier it must sometimes have been laughable, occasionally a case of the fat lady sings; and even the respectful Birmingham audience could barely suppress a snigger.  

But suspension of belief, not slavish literalness, is exactly what the theatre, and opera, is about. Barker gives an acutely sensitive, touching, understanding reading of the role. You believe her, as you must. Butterfly's very youthful innocence underlines not just her vulnerability, but her honesty: her utter personal integrity, and consequent moral beauty. The poetry of her language is like extended haiku. 

Gwyn Hughes Jones's Pinkerton never engaged me, but he sings marvellously: a quite ravishing Italian tenor. His unpressed and ill-fitting outfit looks more like a shambolic carabinieri uniform than the turn-out of a U.S. naval officer. He could have been court-marshalled for that alone. 

Put together with the dismally unpressed white trousers of the masterly Alan Opie's equally fabulously sung Sharpless, the dignified, genial, sensible, admonitory but ultimately ineffectual American Consul in Nagasaki, the pair looked a bit of a shower.  

It's a nasty opera. The imperialistic undertones and arrogance of the whole U.S.-Japanese relationship seem horrifying; like the British rape of China. You begin to see what sort of indignation might have engendered Pearl Harbour. 

Puccini's score is so utterly ravishing, so larded with understanding of how to evoke utter desolation and pathos with every bar, above all in Butterfly's own heartrending near-monologues, that this opera cannot fail. His musical sources are always hard to place, but harmonic analogies with Debussy constantly suggested themselves; and he doubtless knew his Massenet. 

Prelude to tragedy: Gwyn Hughes Jones as Lieutenant Pinkerton and Cheryl Barker as Cio-Cio-San

The final scene, where we sense (only from the hoot here) the ship's impending departure, and brace ourselves, with Butterfly, for the end, her child blindfolded behind her, is the best in the production partly because the boy lovechild (a role shared between Jacob Adams and Dylan Sullivan) is so well positioned (Herz's one directorial triumph is directing the children) and so well acted. Old heads on young shoulders. Birmingham hearts duly melted.   

Others supporting the action deserve a mention. In this final scene, Sian Meinir's Kate Pinkerton – you sense the new wife may well be the next victim – desperately gathers up the child to spirit him away from the grisly scene. Kate is often a well-taken role; but I thought Meinir was rather distinctive, as both a voice and a presence. The boy, called Trouble, has a future in the great U. S. of A. But you cannot tell whether he'll end up a West Point three star general, a Harvard professor or a Brooklyn drug addict.  

Butterfly has more relations flocking around than the average Irish catholic family during the potato famine: mother, cousin, two uncles, nephew – quite apart from various nosy official visitors on a par with Aristophanes' Birds. Her suicide begins to look like an escape from them as well. But best for me were Derek and David Tilley [sic] playing the (unsung) servant, cook and bottle-washer roles. They cheered up the start no end; and if they didn't look Japanese for a second, they felt quietly simpatico. The Oscars for this moving Butterfly go to them and the boy. To 09-03-13

Roderic Dunnett

And from behind the cherry blossom . . .

****

FOR sheer drama and beautiful singing this production of Puccini's classic opera would take some beating.

The tragic tale of young Japanese geisha girl's love for an American naval officer, who proves to be no gentleman, is beautifully told, and the heartbreaking final scenes brought tears to the eyes of many people in the large first night audience.

Cheryl Barker is superb as 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San (Madam Butterfly), overcoming the obvious age difference with the quality of her voice, particularly in the main duet with the man she marries in spite of opposition from her relations in Nagasaki.

A fine performance, too, from Gwyn Hughes Jones, playing Lieutenant Pinkerton. His casual approach to marrying the young girl then sailing away leaving her pregnant is convincing enough to earn him a round of boos, followed by applause at the final curtain.

The scene where Cio-Cio-San, her devoted servant Suzuki (Claire Bradshaw) and fair-haired son Sorrow, stand waiting in silhouette behind a transparent sliding door of their home when Pinkerton's gun ship arrives in the harbour after three years, is breathtaking.

The opera is performed with costumes and set in sepia tinged colour to represent the effect of an old photograph giving a glimpse of a vanished world. It works well.

Alan Opie is convincing as Sharpless, the American Consul who warned Pinkerton about his casual attitude to the marriage.

The opera is sung in Italian with electronic surtitles  in English which help the audience follow the story, though for people in the stalls the screen is so high they are in danger of suffering stiff necks.

Further performances are on Friday and Saturday nights (to 09-03-13).

Paul Marston 

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