Madama Butterfly – Richmond Theatre, London
Writer: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Music: Giacomo Puccini
Director: Ellen Kent
Reviewer: Hattie Williams
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is rejuvenated in Ellen Kent’s powerful production that entwines the poise of 19th century operatic traditions with boundless passion. Vitalii Kutsenko conducts the Ukrainian National Opera of Kharkiv through the haunting score that thickens John Luther Long’s plot into a story of selfish desire, festering love and bitter remorse.
Elena Dee’s Cio Cio San (Butterfly) is heartbreakingly vulnerable and her childish qualities make Butterfly’s bridal age of 15 entirely believable. The worldly and not so wise bridegroom, American Lieutenant Pinkerton, is performed by the incredible range of Ruslan Zinevych.
Zinevych and Dee are entrancing in their long duet, ebbing and flowing in voice and body, ending spectacularly with Vogliatemi bene as Pinkerton persuades his Butterfly bride to bed. The romance of the scene is tainted by his cruel influence, leaving Butterfly “disowned” by her people “but happy” in believing she is to be part of her new husband’s American dream. But as the second act draws on, the timidity in her voice diminishes in impassioned speeches and experience forces her to mature into a woman, and a stunning soprano.
Sergiy Ledenov’s grinning matchmaker Goro adds a darkly comic twist to the main action, shifting and fidgeting in the shadows in anticipation of another marriage deal to satisfy his pocket. His seedy tones set off the warmth of baritone Ievgenii Lysytskyi who plays Sharpless, US Consul and the confidant of Pinkerton.
Given the strength of the leads, the extensive chorus in the opening scenes felt cumbersome and added little to the wedding spectacle, rather distracting from its subjects. Once the crowds cleared and the communal encounters gave way to the personal, Zinevych in particular was relieved from a slight awkwardness, subject to overacting inbetween his first dialogue with Sharpless.
Lysytskyi’s sincere performance captures the struggle of Sharpless as his loyalties are stretched between the Orient and the West. The talented Viktoriia Zhytkova’s devoted Suzuki compliments Sharpless in sentiment and sound, adding a unexpected uniformity to the characters despite their cultural differences.
The £27,000 worth of costumes lent by Ellen Kent to Ukrainian National Opera is evident in the intense palette of colour and material creating the extravagant vision of Madama Butterfly. Stage manager Elena Stetiuc returns to the conventional Japanese set of a garden and porch, leaving Tim Albery’s translucent fantasy behind and utilising sliding doors as a screen both to conceal and expose its inhabitants.
Valeri Danilciuc’s ingenious lighting forms silhouettes from the backdrop, outlining the female figure in shadows that stimulate the intense desire of Pinkerton and betray the violence of Butterfly’s suicide at the Opera’s close. The roof of the house glows with the setting sun and cools with a backdrop of blue mountains at dusk, fitting to the mood of Butterfly as her hopes rise and wither with an empty horizon.
Set above the red curtains of Richmond theatre are the words, ‘To wake the soul by tender strokes of art’. Nothing is more fitting to the staging of Madama Butterfly in this intensely emotional and tragic production that is a pleasure to behold and beautiful to hear, from the pomp of Dovunque al mondo to the calm of the ‘Humming Chorus’.