For a first venture into the world of opera – apart from a picnic in Hyde Park watching the amazing Pavarotti with my parents about decade ago – Madam Butterfly was the perfect choice. Sung in English, you’d think I’d be able understand and follow the plot. You’d be wrong. Such is the speed and decibel most of the opera is sung in, for the most part I couldn’t understand a word of it. But, that doesn’t detract in the slightest. Seriously.
Once you let the story of a geisha Cio-Cio San (Madam Butterfly), flow over you, is soon becomes apparent it’s going to be a tragic one. After marrying Pinkerton, an American soldier, Butterfly’s abandoned and waits three years for his return.
Set in-the-round, her house is surrounded by Japanese gardens in which floating candles are released during one night time scene and later drained – symbolizing her change in fortune in the second two acts I assumed.
The Albert Hall is put to good use with characters entering from all directions, singing beautifully as they walked with lanterns. However, the set also causes problems: engaging with the character can be difficult when they are singing on the other side of the house and you’re missing out on the action.
We watched Mihoko Kinoshita, not entirely believable as a naïve 15 year old Butterfly in the first act, stir emotions with her soprano performance in Acts 2 and 3. The all-night vigil when Butterfly waits for American to return to her allows Oliver Gooch conducting of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to shine as the tension grows.
It was always going to end badly. I won’t give away the plot but it’s fair to say Pinkerton is a cad to put it mildly.
As the final note is sung, women in the audience were wiping away tears and Mihoko looked exhausted. And so were we. An emotional evening and the best possible introduction to Puccini.
Madam Butterfly, Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AP until Sunday 13 March 2011
by Jackie Ooh