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Welsh National Opera: Madam Butterfly - Review

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
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Opera given a radical makeover
Welsh National Opera have been touring their previous production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly since 1978 but this autumn the Cardiff-based company steps out with a new adaptation. Performed at Birmingham Hippodrome, the opera has been shaken and stirred for a show which is a far cry from the previous one.

Out go the kimonos and in come pink and white ruffled dresses, out go the geisha girl hair styles to be replaced by towering pink wigs and out go the cherry blossom and Japanese screens, now a faceless white apartment block.

Indeed director Lindy Hume and designer Isabella Bywater dispense with Japan altogether this story could be taking place in any country and is set in the near future.

WNO Madam Butterfly
WNO Madam Butterfly

In the tale, Butterfly marries visiting American Pinkerton in what he sees as a short-term foreign dalliance but she believes to be a love match for ever. When Pinkerton leaves for his home country, Butterfly puts her faith in him returning to her only to be disappointed.

Keen to explore issues around the #metoo movement and colonialism, in this adaptation Butterfly could be any woman exploited by a man from a richer and more powerful nation.

In some ways this works very effectively. Once the wedding is over and the characters return to normal dress, we quickly identify them as just like us. Dressed in pink socks, Butterfly wanders around the apartment opening the fridge and checking kitchen cupboards while her maid Suzuki, in leggings and oversized T-shirt, battles with the laundry.

This normality makes the abandonment of Butterfly by her supposed husband all the more shocking in its banality. Butterfly is no longer a tragic geisha girl but a single mum without enough cash to put food in the fridge.

But in other ways the modern setting creates its own problems. For example although the team have ensured there are no electronic devices anywhere in this modern-day setting, there is a risk of the audience thinking during Butterfly's three-year wait why doesn't she just text him?

Madam Butterfly at Birmingham Hippodrome
Madam Butterfly

Alexia Voulgaridou plays an increasingly desperate Butterfly. While she smiles and professes faith in her missing lover, the white knuckles with which she grips the handrail bely that confidence. Here is a woman who can feel her security slipping away and, faced with the shame and hardship, she chooses a different fate by taking her own life.

Leonardo Caimi's Pinkerton is a prosperous businessman working abroad who can buy a temporary wife with the same ease as he purchases the apartment. But when he returns three years later and sees the handprints of his child on the wall, he realises too late that Butterfly is not a commodity but a human being fatally wounded by his actions.

Anna Harvey's Suzuki is desperate to shake Butterfly out of her self-deception but is unable to do so while Mark Stone's Sharpless is the voice of wisdom who warns Pinkerton at the beginning that for Butterfly this is more than just a passing fancy.

Bywater's apartment building set is anonymously white with no other ornamentation on stage. It is functional, modern and faceless but during the wedding scene it becomes a beautiful backdrop to projections of butterflies and calm water created by video designer Ash J Woodward. Stark lighting by Elanor Higgins illuminates every detail and keeps our focus on the home.

Puccini's lush score is well-known to the WNO Orchestra who play it with confidence under the baton of conductor Carlo Rizzi.

This production is certainly a new direction from WNO's previous Butterfly when it's themes are so current it will be interesting to see whether it matches its longevity.

Madam Butterfly is performed alongside The Barber of Seville, see for details.
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Why? Classic opera moved into a new dimension
When: October 19-20
Phone: 0844 338 5000
Where: Birmingham Hippodrome
Cost: From 22.50
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