BWW Reviews: MADAM BUTTERFLY (OR BANGKOK BUTTERFLY), The Kings Head Theatre, January 5 2011

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"Operaupclose is dedicated to presenting new, difficult and classic operas in intimate spaces with world class trained singers and directors, bring opera to life for diverse audiences and to offer the extraordinary opportunity to the dramatic and musical event of opera up close." London's Little Opera House at the Kings Head Theatre's production of Madam Butterfly (or Bangkok Butterfly), gave me the opportunity to measure the success of that bold manifesto's claims on an unpromisingly dank night in austerity Islington. .

It was pint glasses rather than picnic baskets in hand, as a Gospel Oakers, not Glyndebourners filed in to fill the 150 or so seats at the back of the pub. To the likes of me, for whom opera has been a quick glance at The Three Tenors CDs in Tesco and an instant channel-surf away from BBC Four and the Sky Arts schedule-busting epics, this was encouraging. With a set pared down to a single Bangkok apartment room and just three musicians on piano, viola and clarinet, first-time opera director, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, was already ahead of the game before a note had been sung.

Lights down and... where are the fat middle-aged men cast as lithe young lotharios; the middle-aged women playing teenagers; the overcooked spectacle and bombast; and the words, that, when you can make them out at all, are impenetrably foreign? Those preconceptions disappeared the moment Captain Pinkerton (Stephen Anthony Brown), shooting the cuffs of his pilot's jacket, smugly strides on stage, to be told by local fixer, Goro, that an American in Thailand can have anything he wants - for dollars. Soon we find out that what Pinkerton wants is fifteen-year-old Ladyboy, Butterfly (Laura Casey), and that, despite warnings from less arrogant men, Pinkerton is happy to pursue his heart's, (okay, his loins') desire and hang the consequences. But this is opera, and Italian opera to boot, so things don't work out well.

There's plenty of politics in this radical reinterpretation of the Puccini classic. It addresses men like Pinkerton, at home respectable professionals, but abroad and off the leash, bar-hopping sex tourists whose money and hypocrisy drive a hideous industry. But one can also find a metaphor for the West's approach to much of the chaotic Developing World. Pinkerton, having plundered what he wanted, provides cash and security to his quasi-wife Butterfly and her servant, but neither love nor empathy is in Pinkerton's gameplan - he prefers to seal off his charges in their own world with no intention of allowing them access to riches (financial and emotional) of his. Multinational companies' extraction of developing nations' natural resources and exploitation of its cheap labour, supported by Western government's rigorous border controls and use of peace-keeping forces to provide local "security", is Pinkerton's strategy extended from the personal to the political.

Up close opera is promised and that's what you get in every sense. There's some fine acting amongst the singing, especially from Clare Presland as the faithful servant Suzuki, but Ms Casey, naively optimistic and puppy-fatted up in the first act, grows old before our eyes as she becomes horribly aware of her self-delusion in acts two and three. The iconic aria, Un bel di, sung, acted and felt by Ms Casey almost within touching distance, is viscerally moving, an operatic punch to the solar plexus, provoking applause in the house since the only alternative would be sobs.

Back at the manifesto, its ambition is met and, at £15 for a seat, anyone can do what I did and leave their preconceptions at home and enjoy opera's emotional rollercoaster - up close.


Madam Butterfly (or Bangkok Butterfly) continues until 23 January 2011



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From This Author Gary Naylor