Opera Reviews
14 August 2020
Untitled Document

Scottish Opera's Butterfly soars with a new cast

by Catriona Graham
Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Scottish Opera
May 2014

Opera productions are revived not just because they are popular, but because they work, as David McVicar’s production of Madama Butterfly, for Scottish Opera shows. Now on its third outing (previously seen in 2000 and 2007) and revived by Elaine Kidd, Yannis Thavoris’ minimalist design of shoji (sliding screens) is still stylish. The difference lies in what the new cast brings.

The tale of temporary marriage between a visiting American naval officer and a fifteen year old geisha has its roots both in fiction and in memoir. The younger the tenor singing Pinkerton is, the better. Such brash insensitivity is forgivable (just) in a young man, and the eventual remorse more convincing, than the sleazy, exploitative implications of an older casting. José Ferrero’s Pinkerton is young enough to be thoughtless and old enough for the American Consul, Sharpless, to expect him to know better. On the wedding night, like Cio-Cio-San, we believe Pinkerton’s words of affection, as their voices soar to ever greater heights.

Christopher Purves’ Sharpless is, fundamentally, a good man, trying to explain Japan and its customs to his unheeding compatriots, understanding only too well the likelihood of a bad outcome. Both he and the maid Suzuki (an eloquent Hanna Hipp) are the most sympathetic characters, looking on in increasing distress as the inevitable tragedy works itself out. Goro, a brisk Adrian Thompson, is a practical businessman, with an eye to a bargain.

From her first appearance, led on by her female relatives in bustles, Hye-Youn Lee’s grace and elegance as Cio-Cio-San charms the audience. It helps that she looks the part. There is no need for the usual Japanese mannerisms, such as tittering into a fan, to suspend our disbelief. But she has not been cast for her looks alone – her voice fills the space with love, with joy, with despair. Those well-known arias sound fresh and new.

The passage of time is indicated by subtle lighting (Paule Constable, revived by Robert B Dickson) – flickering candles for the Humming Chorus, a crescent moon for the wedding night. Under Marco Guidarini’s direction, the orchestra safely navigates the diverse musical styles and echoes, from Sullivan and the Stars and Stripes, to Japanese modes. Movement is directed by Namiko Gahier-Ogawa, the chorus convincingly curious, then shocked.

While the temporary marriage is the core, the backstory is why Cio-Cio-San agreed to the marriage and held on to hope till she could hope no longer. She does not kill herself for love of Pinkerton. Renounced by her family – Jonathan May is a scary Bonze - for taking her husband’s faith because he is her escape from poverty, she would rather die than go back there. Lee conveys this rational choice, yet makes it clear she loves him, she is not mercenary. Their child, Sorrow, has a future with his father and American wife Kate – a gentle, almost apologetic Catrin Aur. As Pinkerton cradles the dying Cio-Cio-San, there is just enough life left for her to reach out in embrace.

Text © Catriona Graham
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