Madame Butterfly: Opera South East


White Rock Theatre, Hastings 25 October 2013

There is always a danger of a work like Madame Butterfly becoming over-sentimentalised, and it was one of the great strengths of Fraser Grant’s approach that it eschewed sentiment in the face of a starker emotional reality. Moving the period of the work to the 1920s certainly helped this. The tension between the traditional Japanese east and the more decadent, if not actually debased, proto-Christian west gave a framework within which the tragedy unfolded with uneasy naturalism.

Pinkerton can too readily be seen as a brash cad, but James Heath creates a far more complex personality. In act one his naivety seems closer to Albert Herring than to Don Jose, and the underlying eroticism was helped by Elizabeth Roberts all too willing Butterfly. Her appearance in a western wedding veil was immediately telling, and the arrival of the Bonze (strongly characterised by Toby Sims) who rips the veil from her, highlighted the dichotomy for a society in transition.

Trying to bridge the disparate elements, Peter Grevatt’s Sharpless was a master of tact, but, in the superbly handled letter scene in act two, proved to be out of his depth. There is nothing he can do to prevent the inevitable tragic conclusion, though he spent most of act one warning the love-sick Pinkerton that no good would come of it.

Like Juliet’s nurse, Karen McInally’s Suzuki starts the evening in a warmly comfortable position, hopeful that all will be for the best, but gradually slips into despair. It was noteworthy that her singing became stronger as the evening progressed and she was forced by circumstance to make more and more decisions for Butterfly, who has now lost her grip on life.

Elizabeth Roberts has to carry most of the second act and she did so with relish. Her western dress, and willingness to wrap herself in the stars and stripes, both at odds with her continuing Japanese references, pointed to a mind disintegrating under the emotional pressure. This was equally true of James Heath’s Pinkerton. The intelligent use of costume here indicated that not only was this three years later, but he has matured considerably. The creased white jacket of the first act has become a formal black officer uniform by act two. But he is unprepared for the emotional impact of meeting Butterfly again. Her suicide is unconventional and disturbing. She writhes as she dies with the eroticism we had seen at the end of act one. Pinkerton can only stare impotently, unable to act or react.

Musically it was a fine evening throughout. Kenneth Robert’s approach to the score was unhurried, constructing long paragraphs of lyricism to support the action. Orchestral solos were always apt with some impressive work from the first violin, Andrew Laing. The small chorus sang valiantly, with an effective on-stage rendition of the humming chorus.

The settings, with eight movable translucent screens, were highly effective and intelligently lit throughout. Given the quality of lighting available today, my only mild complaint was that Puccini’s glorious transition from twilight to early morning was ignored visually to be replaced by a loop of Kata martial arts and birds on sticks; a pity not to trust the composer on this occasion, when so much of the rest of the evening had been so good. BH

Final performance tonight at 7.30pm

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