Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Madama Butterfly; Lessons in Love and Violence

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Madama Butterfly; Lessons in Love and Violence

Article excerpt

There is no such thing as a moderately good performance of Madama Butterfly, or, to be more precise, it's not possible to be slightly or rather moved by a performance. As with some of Shakespeare's plays, and most of Wagner's music-dramas, one is either shaken and overcome, or refrigerated and indifferent. So it's sad to report that Glyndebourne's first ever Butterfly, toured in 2016 but now settling on home ground, is a stolid, undistinguished affair, with some decent moments and much that seems routine and a fair amount that is worse than that.

Is it a good idea to update an opera that is set in Nagasaki to the 1950s, when the city was still reeling from the effects of the second atom bomb? Goro's office and the tattoo parlour opposite seem to have survived; anyway, the office is where Act One is located, making a nonsense of the opening exchanges between Pinkerton and Goro, as well as introducing an element of sleaze that is the opposite of what Puccini intended. The love duet that closes Act One, the composer's most lovely and tumescent music, should entrance us, while its closing bars should carry a faint but painful warning of the privations and misery ahead. None of that happened at Glyndebourne.

Musically, the main blame for that must fall on the conductor Omer Meir Wellber, whose tempi in Act One were all so leisurely that I wondered whether Pinkerton would ever be granted his night of love. Butterfly's entry, in particular, the first magical moment in the opera, was both absurdly prolonged and her voice so distant that she was merely not there until suddenly she was. But each silence -- there are many in Act One, signalling embarrassment, hesitancy, expectation, change of emotional direction -- was merely inert, achieving the opposite of the intended effect.

The best singing and acting came from Michael Sumuel's Sharpless, who made the most of the moving warning to Pinkerton that Butterfly will take things much more seriously than he will, and the Suzuki of Elizabeth DeShong, aggressively protective of Butterfly, and with a voice suggesting she will soon be singing Erda. The two lead singers have some qualities which suit them for their roles, but they aren't well directed by Annilese Miskimmon, and have vocal shortcomings. …

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