02 Jul 2017

WNO's Butterfly at the Birmingham Hippodrome

WNO’s summer tour of Joachim Herz’s 1978 production of Madame Butterfly, revived by Sarah Crisp, arrived at the Birmingham Hippodrome this week. A ‘traditional’ assemblage of raised dwellings and sliding Shoji screens, Reinhart Zimmermann’s sepia set evokes the dulling of oriental grace by Western mundanity. For the dull taupe curtains which frame the sides and room of the set drape their traditional sprinkling of willow and bamboo like a bleached Hokusai wave. The effect is suffocating, blocking out any sense of a world outside Cio-Cio-San’s abode.

Similarly, Eleonore Kleiber’s costumes - all uninspiring browns and beiges - suggest that the exotic richness of the East has been leeched of its colour by imperial avarice and domination. Servants, officials and grandees alike sport Western headgear - bowlers, trilbies - and this Pinkerton is no dashing US officer, but a middle-aged boor in search of a dalliance before he returns to the US to find himself a ‘proper’ US wife. It’s depressingly bleak, visually and contextually.

There are moments when the screens serve up their magic, shifting with the mercurial mystery of a magical Rubik Cube. At the end of Act 1, an impatient Pinkerton slides through the maze and beckons to his new bride through the twilight. And, at the end of the first part of Act 2, the tortured silhouettes of Suzuki, Butterfly and her son, stark against the translucency, form a painful image of futile hope as they long for Pinkerton’s return.

But, the sparsity of Butterfly’s abode makes it difficult for us to imagine the further material hardship that ensues following Pinkerton’s desertion. Indeed, Act 2 reveals that two chairs, including a patriarchal looking porch rocker, have been imported into her home, their emptiness an irrevocable sign of absence and rejection.

The latter scenes, however, suggest that the external world is irrelevant to this Butterfly; she is entrapped in a world which she has created inside her own mind - a fantasy of family and a future. When her child runs in, during her anguished conversation with the US Consul Sharpless, he’s an unexpected reminder that there is a world beyond Butterfly’s mental delusions and suffering.

Despite the Japonaiserie, there was a disappointing lack of authentic grace about the movement direction of this performance. At times, I felt that rather more care should have been taken to ensure authenticity of detail and gesture. The heavy-footed shuffles and clumsy bows of the servants in the opening scene were ungainly. Later, when Cio-Cio-San arrived with her friends, despite the fine singing of the ladies of the WNO Chorus I longed for them to be less brazen, to hide their faces behind their fans - it was all a little G&S, as if they would break out into ‘Three Little Maids’ any moment …

wnomadambutterflydavidkempstersharplessleoadamstroublekarahsoncio-cio-sanrebeccaafonwy-jonessuzukiphotocreditjeremyabrahams_01.jpg David Kempster (Sharpless), Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San - from an earlier performance in the run), Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Suzuki). Photo credit: Jeremy Abrahams.

Similarly, Richard Wiegold’s Bonze was a figure of pantomime-esque ‘menace’, and Yakuside’s drunken exploits (exuberantly delivered by George-Newton Fitzgerald) were a caricature of the ‘wedding guest from hell’. Yamadori (Alastair Moore) was no imperious, regal suitor: carried in by two lackeys who struggled to bear the weight of his sedan chair, his entrance was less than stately and imposing, and vocally Moore conveyed little overbearing arrogance. David Kempster’s Sharpless was similarly lacking in definition and presence, his phrases requiring more strength and character. When Butterfly related her tragic tale, this Sharpless - arms tucked behind his back - seemed unmoved, and later emotional displays seemed little more than clich├ęd affectation. Butterfly’s son (Haydn Morgan Lockwood) provided the requisite ‘cuteness’ but - even allowing for theatrical licence and suspension of disbelief - it was hard to believe that this near-shoulder-high lad was a mere three years old.

wnomadambutterfly-rebeccaafonwy-jonessuzukiphotocreditjeremyabrahams-186_01.jpg Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Suzuki). Photo credit: Jeremy Abrahams.

The performance was ‘saved’ by some sterling vocal commitment and delineation by several of the principals. Simon Crosby Buttle’s Goro was less overtly rapacious and ‘evil’ than is sometimes the case, but his excellent diction and poker-straight demeanour conveyed a frightening self-possession and power. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones was a superb Suzuki, her rich voice strong in all registers, the phrasing well-judged. This Suzuki was not in awe of her mistress; instead she lamented and raged at her misconceptions. When Cio-Cio-San announced that she had been to the Mission to convert to her new husband’s ‘faith’, Suzuki bowed her head to the floor in abjection and appeasement to her own gods; and, she possessively snatched up the spirits of Butterfly’s ancestors which Pinkerton so crudely dismisses as ‘puppets’, recognising her mistress’s tragic error.

Paul Charles Clarke’s ignorant, cloddish Pinkerton was lacking in allure, as the production seems to demand - as when he petulantly clapped his hands, to get the faux marriage rituals over and done with. More disappointingly, his vocal phrasing was sometimes inelegant as he forced his tenor somewhat emphatically, struggling to carry across the WNO Orchestra - who played accurately and articulately, but who were over-encouraged at times by conductor Andrew Greenwood.

But, Judith Howard’s Cio-Cio-San grew in sympathetic stature as the performance progressed. Though there were initially a few giggles when she declared her years of age to be more than 10 and less than 20, once she’d untied the cheap butterfly clips holding up her hair, Howard acquired more grace, even though she was dressed for Act 2 in a shapeless dress that was more Victorian governess’s dowdy gown than the plainest kimono. Howard had the vocal stamina for the role, and real strength and grace at the top, though her lower-pitched passages carried less well. ‘One Fine Day’ was movingly shaped, and while Pinkerton lacked forthcoming warmth in their Act 1 ending duet, Howard’s lines gleamed with hopefulness.

The final moments failed to convince, although Cio-San-San’s heroic self-sacrifice was beautifully lit (original lighting design by John Waterhouse), her son shielded from her violent end by the opacity of a screen. Why would Kate Pinkerton grab the child and run off, flinging his treasured teddy bear to the ground? Why would Suzuki chase after her, rather than rush to her dying mistress’s side?

Overall, the drama felt slow - and at just over three hours, this was a long running time. At times, there was an unfortunate amateurishness to the choreography and acting, but the strong singing of Howard and Afonwy-Jones lifted the performance to emotionally moving peaks. In any case, the punters seemed delighted.

Claire Seymour

Puccini: Madame Butterfly

Cio-Cio-San - Judith Howard, Lieutenant Pinkerton - Paul Charles Clarke, Goro - Simon Crosby Buttle, Suzuki - Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Sharpless - David Kempster, Bonze - Richard Wiegold, Prince Yamadori - Alastair Moore, Kate Pinkerton - Sian Meinir, Yakuside (Uncle) - George Newton-Fitzgerald, Cousin - Meriel Andrew, Mother - Monika Sawa, Aunt - Sawa, Imperial Commissioner - Martin Lloyd, Official Registrar - Jack O’Kelly, Trouble (Cio-Cio-San’s child) - Haydn Morgan Lockwood, Cousin’s child - Joshua Barnfield, Servant and Cook - David Tilley & Derek Tilley, Geishas/Relations/Monks/Servants/Sailors - WNO Chorus.

Director - Joachim Herz, Revival director - Sarah Crisp, Conductor - Andrew Greenwood, Designer - Reinhart Zimmermann, Costume designer - Eleonore Kleiber, Lighting designer - John Waterhouse, WNO Orchestra.

Birmingham Hippodrome; Friday 30th June 2017.