BWW Review: MADAM BUTTERFLY, Bristol Old Vic
Founded in 2009, OperaUpClose's mission is to create "innovatively staged, unintimidating, and crucially high quality English Chamber re-imaginings of well known work and premieres of new operas". With 29 operas to date, a mix of classics and contemporary work, and an Olivier Award in 2011, there's no denying the hard work and success they've had in introducing opera, a seemingly formidable art form, to new audiences.
It's a real shame, then, that this new version of Puccini's Madam Butterfly feels laboured and never quite soars. Transposed to 1980's Japan, we follow Cio Cio San, a young woman who is abandoned by her lover, Pinkerton, after sacrificing everything to be a model of the dutiful American wife. Thus, the piece becomes an exploration of the heart and mind as our Butterfly adjusts to a new culture, love and the ramifications of the betrayal.
The set and costumes, both by Cindy Lin, allow for an element of playfulness as traditional Japanese culture is overcome by Western influences, but the shift feels rather sudden and jarring and might have been more impactful if done with more subtlety to begin with.
Her set design is striking - a simple apartment with a balcony that the front is taken off eventually to reveal the room within. The compact nature of the set is clever as it perhaps signifies the heroine's turmoil as she waits in vain for her husband's return, but during some scenes the space isn't used to its full potential in terms of direction and movement.
Scenes feel consistently fragmented and very "stop start" in nature, and because the piece lacks flow, it feels difficult to establish an emotional connection, particularly during the first two acts. Happily, this changes in Act III as the piece ramps up momentum as we head towards the devastating climax, but this almost feels too little too late - and getting to that point is laborious.
One of the most beloved operas of all time, new orchestrations by Ruth Chan breathe new life into Madam Butterfly, which is performed by a diverse cast of eight singers and four musicians. They do a valiant job, even if musically it doesn't fully satisfy.
There are fine performances, particularly the quietly compelling Jane Monari as Suzuki, and Jan Capinski is endearing as Sharpless. Our leads, Karlene Moreno-Hayworth and Jonathan Cooke, are an interesting pairing; vocally, Heyworth is stronger, while Cooke struggles initially but eventually settles into his stride. He makes Pinkerton a unlikeable figure almost immediately, all swagger and laidback attitude, and so it's incredibly easy to sympathise with San's plight.
Heyworth imbues Cio Cio San with a steely resolve, and even manages to add some sarcastic wit that's fun to watch. She's enchanting as she wrestles with Pinkerton's betrayal, and the light and shade she offers gradually makes proceedings feel less lacklustre.
Ambitious and with some striking design, this reimagining does strike some clever high notes, but overall doesn't fly as high as it should.
Photo Credit: Nicola Young