14 Jun 2013

Madama Butterfly, Opera Holland Park

There is a sense in which it all began in London, Puccini having been seized in 1900 with the idea of an opera on this subject after watching David Belasco’s play here.

London, in the guise of Opera Holland Park, certainly repaid the favour on this occasion. Not only, vile weather notwithstanding, did it aid my already rapid thawing towards Puccini; it offered a production and performance which, considered as a whole, were probably the finest I have yet seen at Holland Park.

It was certainly a relief to be spared the vulgarity of a Zeffirelli-like production. Paul Higgins’s staging and Neil Irish’s designs were not abstract, but they were (at least by some standards) relatively spare, offering a space in which the action may unfold rather than overwhelming it. The screens at the back of the stage both facilitate comings and goings and offer a welcome impression of Japanese or at least Orientalist stylisation; likewise the costumes are ‘faithful’ to time and place, without becoming an end in themselves. The American flag is as noticeable on stage as it is in Puccini’s score, perhaps a little less, but the effect in both is as much exotic as straightforwardly anti-imperialist. I cannot help but wish that Puccini had been a little more restrained in his use both of the ghastly Star Spangled Banner and those too-obvious pentatonicisms, but at least he, like the staging, is relatively even-handed. (I suppose we should remind ourselves that what has become wearily commonplace for us was still very much new musical territory not so long after the celebrated Paris exhibitions.) Higgins also reminds us and holds in our mind that Cio-Cio-San is a dancer, Namiko Gahier-Ogawa’s movement working well in context. Nothing peripheral, however, is permitted to obscure the central tragedy: a signal achievement from which many directors could learn.

That also depends, of course, on a convincing assumption of the title role. Anne Sophie Duprels offered something rather more than merely convincing; she inhabited the role completely, offering a rounded portrayal in dramatic and vocal terms alike. Not a single false note, in any sense, was struck, and one sympathised to a degree beyond the expectations engendered by what can often seem a silly role. Butterfly’s delusion, then, convinced at least as much as her attraction. There was strength without steel, nobility without hauteur. Joseph Wolverton’s Pinkerton occasionally sounded a little too Italianate in the pejorative sense, and proved somewhat lacking in stage presence; still, with the American flag on his side, perhaps he did not need them. Chloe Hinton offered hints of something far more in the role of his wife, but given the nature of that role, they could be little more than that. Patricia Orr, however, impressed greatly as a wise Suzuki, beautiful and graceful of voice and movement. David Stephenson’s Sharpless likewise made much, though never too much, of words and music. The suitors’ and other smaller roles were all well taken.

The chorus sang and acted creditably throughout, clearly well trained. I was surprised by how little I missed the sound of a larger orchestra, the losses proving largely cosmetic rather than fundamental. Indeed, one heard in the City of London Sinfonia’s performance (strings a great deal more of the inner workings — more than once I found myself recalling aspects of Die Meistersinger — than one might in a larger-scaled, conventional account. (That is not to claim that I think chamber orchestras should become the norm, but simply to note that, given a high enough level of performance, virtue can arise from necessity.) Manlio Benzi shrewdly marshalled his forces, imparting dramatic tension throughout and steering as clear as might reasonably have been expected from sentimentality.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Butterfly: Anne Sophie Duprels; Pinkerton: Joseph Wolverton; Suzuki: Patricia Orr; Sharpless: David Stephenson; Goro: Robert Burt; Kate Pinkerton: Chloe Hinton; Bonze: Barnaby Rea; Prince Yamadori: John Lofthouse; The Imperial Commissioner: Alistair Sutherland; Butterfly’s Mother: Lindsay Bramley; The Aunt: Loretta Hopkins; The Cousin: Maud Millar; Yakuside: Nathan Morrison; Sorrow: Ben Bristow. Director: Paul Higgins; Designer: Neil Irish; Lighting: Richard Howell; Movement: Namiko Gahier-Ogawa. Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Holly Mathieson); City of London Sinfonia/ Manlio Benzi (conductor). Holland Park, London, Wednesday 12 June 2013.