Madam Butterfly, Welsh National Opera’s first large-scale new production after the pandemic, has triggered debate. In performing Puccini’s opera plagued with problematic issues, will the theme of contemporary slavery and sex trafficking find a footing on the stage? Directed by Lindy Hume, there are some interesting takes, only it seems to challenge little more then what we would see in a traditional production.
The set by Isabella Bywater is a simple, white megalith. There is great use of space in this neon-lit, apartment cube, though it is the kitchen, so compact that little dramatic effect can be seen within it. Bywater’s bonkers costumes, meanwhile, see the title character in a head-turning, vaginal number – a statement so clear you get whiplash. Other clothes evoke French Riviera and the new romantic, white very much being the livery of this staging. No Japanese elements to be seen around, the intention a bold one by the company.
Through the inconsistencies, it’s worth hearing just for the Humming Chorus, sung so delicately by WNO’s master singers. The other problem is the vivid imagery lingering from the last production from WNO, which opened in 1979 and had multiple revivals. Playing Cio-Cio-San is Alexia Voulgaridou, in a show stopping routine. Colour-blind casting has focused on the drama and Alexia has a lot of musical scope, her Un Bel Dì, Vedremo a special interest for all ears present. Her husband Pinkerton has Leonardo Caimi playing the lead we love to hate (a few customary mock boos at the curtain). There is some romance here in his voice, and he mostly felt like he knew the role, if with a little strain at times.
Anna Harvey, the maid Suzuki, has the weight of the story on her shoulders, and another fine voice. Mark Stone as Sharpless, compassionate and well suited to the role, with Keel Watson as The Bonze being a few bombastic minutes of anxiety. There seemed to be no problem sexying up the deeply perfumed Neil Balfour as Prince Yamadori, keen on wooing Cio-Cio-San after her marriage. Tom Randle, as the cheeky marriage broker Goro, is always great in everything he does, and indeed is not on stage enough. His role here is darker because of the nudging of seedy pimp-like attitudes and this could have been utilised to even better effect. From the chorus comes Sophie Yelland as understudy for Kate Pinkerton was also a welcome offering, her brief phase adding greatly to the heartbreaking blast of the finale.
I’d say it’s high time to reconsider opera and its troubling history. Yet, not every take will hit the mark as intended.
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Sun 26 Sept.
words JAMES ELLIS image RICHARD HUBERT SMITH
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