Magazine article The Spectator

Youthful Tragedy

Magazine article The Spectator

Youthful Tragedy

Article excerpt

Madame Butterfly (Northern Ballet, Sadler's Wells)

There is little doubt that Northern Ballet Theatre's Madame Butterfly, created by new artistic director David Nixon, is destined to become one of the company's biggest hits. In line with the well-established canons of the dance-drama genre for which the company is known, Madame Butterfly stands out for its clever mix of immediacy, accessibility and sheer spectacle.

Based on both David Belasco's play and Giacomo Puccini's celebrated opera, this new two-act ballet tells the story of the jilted young geisha via a combination of Japanese music and a rather catchy, though often irritating soundtrack-like re-orchestration of the operatic score. Surprisingly, the translation from sung action to choreography works pretty well, even though I found myself longing more than once for the splendid verses of Luigi Illica's and Giuseppe Giacosa's immortal libretto.

Madame Butterfly is not an easy subject to deal with. The ornamental 1904 orientalism that frames the drama is awkward to tackle, and the whole thing can easily become unbearably twee. I will never forget how some prissy Oriental designs, including fireflies blinking in unison with the great duet at the end of Act I, impinged on what would have been an otherwise superb production at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Festival in Italy. The danger of slipping into something hideously soppy becomes even greater when the words are removed and the story is told with graceful ballet steps and mime gestures.

In Nixon's Madame Butterfly, there are one or two moments where the drama is thwarted by unsuitable choreographic passages that hover on the brink of the ridiculous. The dance of Butterfly's friends at the wedding, for instance, is too reminiscent, and not in flattering terms, of one of those local-colour numbers from the 19th-century repertoire, or one of the dances one expects to find in The Mikado. Personally, I would have also shortened the duet between the eponymous heroine and the rich, dim-witted Yamedori, even though the brief reference to traditional Japanese theatre is a great humorous touch.

There are some good ideas, too. …

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