BWW Review: MADAM BUTTERFLY, Nuffield Southampton Theatres
Sweatpants and slippers aren't the costumes you'd expect to see in an opera. Can a modern version of a classic hit the high notes?
Olivier Award-winning OperaUpClose, in association with the Belgrade Theatre, brings Puccini's Madam Butterfly into the 1980s on their current UK tour.
With a new English version by director Poppy Burton-Morgan, and new orchestration by Ruth Chan, this modernisation of a much-adored story offers up a new perspective and a fusion of the classical and contemporary.
Set in Nagasaki in the 80s, Cio Cio San - or Butterfly - and Pinkerton marry out of convenience; but Cio Cio's loyalty and patience are tested when she is deserted by her husband for three long years. She remains faithful, but to what cost?
Bringing the story into recent history - though it's easy to forget the eighties were over thirty years ago - means that the creative team has the chance to be playful and whimsical with their work. The costumes (designed by Cindy Lin), while nodding to Japanese tradition, also feature Disney characters, tracksuits, neon and bling. The set (also designed by Cindy Lin) shows a cityscape behind a tiny apartment, filled with posters and plastic toys. The result is comfortable familiarity and an intriguing alternative to more traditional productions.
This staging is effective, too, with dual levels and an apartment that opens up in the second act. We are offered the sense of looking in on the private lives of Butterfly and her sister, which adds a lovely personal touch. Neon street lights fizz and glow, as does a moon suspended overhead, giving the scene a soft, urban atmosphere. The juxtaposition of this small, humble dwelling next to towering skyscrapers, again underlines the coexistence of the past and the future.
The diminished yet diverse cast offers a real chance to focus on the characters we meet, giving each performer their chance to truly shine.
The two leads give Great Performances; Mariam Tamari's Cio Cio San/Butterfly seems to really spread her wings in the second act, where her vocals really show their true colours. She is skilled at delivering a delicately dramatic performance, which pairs well with Thomas Kinch's forceful and strapping Pinkerton, who also delivers some seriously strong notes.
Jane Monari as the sister Suzuki is very impressive, her meek character giving way to some powerful vocals which deserve a little more airtime. Jonathan Cooke's Gordon also adds a little comedy to this tragic tale with his superbly sleazy demeanour, which he parades around the stage, much to the audience's delight.
While as a whole this boutique production is charming and effective, certainly achieving its aim of accessibility, it lacks a little something. The music feels too pared down; there is none of the swell and climax you get from a more substantial orchestra, though the simplicity and delicacy often suit the more personal moments in the plot. It would have been interesting to see the modernisation applied to the set and the costumes continued into the musical composition.
Thanks to the pared-down production, Madam Butterfly is indeed a very intimate opera. OperaUpClose offers a far softer, and more accessible and approachable alternative that is fairly easy to follow. However, where the appeal of opera for many may lie in the opulence and excess of the performance, this version may be a little disappointing.
While Madam Butterfly falls short of the heartbreaking, tear-jerking tragedy you might be expecting, it boasts some impressive vocal performances and is a fun and refreshing modern interpretation that is sure to charm.
Photo credit: OperaUpClose