Saturday 30 June 2018

Madame Butterfly at Glyndebourne, or, Foreshadowings of Trump

Note: A review of the performance on Sunday 24th June 2018.

Oddly enough, given my many years of opera going, I'd only seen this repertory staple once before, a Royal Opera House revival something like six years ago. It hadn't particularly stuck in my memory. Consequently, I was surprised by the power of this revisiting, especially the disturbing contemporary parallels.

I had forgotten, in the intervening time, just how bleak a portrait of the United States and its imperial tendencies this opera is. Part of the power comes musically from the interweaving of the Star Spangled Banner – which feels satirical. Part of it, in this production, comes from the film sequence (by Ian William Galloway) inflicted on the line of Japanese brides in Act 1 – looking at the Statue of Liberty on screen I found it impossible not to think of the mockery of that symbol by the current administration. But the text itself is filled with a sense of troubling, dangerous American arrogance – from Pinkerton's casual, careless attitude to his marriage at the beginning through to Kate Pinkerton's “We still get the child?” line at the end – a moment which again, in light of the events in the States in the past week, has a real horror.

Annilese Miskimmon's fine production brings the consequences of this collision out well elsewhere, supported by a straightforward effective design from Nicky Shaw, and clever, subtle work from Movement Director Kally Lloyd-Jones. It's painful to watch Butterfly's persistent assertion that this is an American house, that she is an American wife in Act Two – when we know perfectly well that such an attempt at assimilation will never be accepted. We also see this in little details like the guilty but ineffective consul removing his shoes whenever he enters Butterfly's house, while it clearly never crosses Pinkerton's mind to do so.

Musically this was also a strong evening. The best work came from the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the hands of Omer Meir Wellber. He has that sense of drama, of inexorable forward momentum which is so crucial to a work like this but which plenty of conductors don't find. Nor is he lacking in drawing out the emotional feeling. I hope other UK houses will be engaging him soon (the Royal Opera which has had rather too many indifferent conductors in recent times could certainly do to take a look). The orchestra play beautifully for him – particularly a rich, feeling sound from the strings. The chorus are also in good voice – particularly in the humming chorus which works superbly by positioning the singers in the auditorium – I imagine you could do this in few other houses and this is an excellent reason, if there weren't plenty of others, for staging this work in this house.

The singing is a little bit more mixed, though never less than solid. There's a lot to commend in Olga Busuioc's Butterfly. Particularly in Acts 2 and 3 she delivers a consistently moving piece of acting, and there's great vocal power at the crucial moments. In the intimate sections though, I felt the voice doesn't always quite have the flexibility or dynamic range I'd have liked. She also doesn't quite convince as the alleged 15 yr old of Act 1 – though I think this is probably an almost impossible ask of any performer. All that said in Acts 2 and 3 she is a haunting, striking presence – the details of movement and character carefully, precisely done – all of which combining with singing power to overbear the occasional vocal doubt.

As Pinkerton Joshua Guerrero has to battle with the fundamentally unlikeable nature of the character. Again it's a fine acting performance moving from ardent lover in Act 1 to a man in flight from responsibility in Act 3. Vocally he often finds the necessary heroic ring but can sound a little on the edge of his comfort zone, and the blend between his and Busuioc's voices could work better.In the supporting roles there's a powerfully sung and acted Suzuki from Elizabeth DeShong, a nicely characterised if occasionally a bit underpowered Sharpless from Michael Sumuel, and a excellent underplayed and all the more chilling for it performance from Ida Ranzlov in the cameo role of Kate Pinkerton.

The crucial thing with a war horse work like this is to make it live as drama. To make the viewer care again. Although I sometimes had gripes about the singing, overall I was emotionally gripped – especially in the latter two acts – by the plight of these characters, especially Butterfly herself. And I was haunted by telling links between the America depicted here and the Trumpian moment we are currently confronted by. These were the more powerful through not being overt – this show makes convincing these characters and their situation while leaving space for us to draw wider inferences. There are quite a few practitioners of more overtly political theatre and opera who could learn from such subtlety. Well worth splashing out for one of the remaining performances.

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