Saturday, 14th May, 2022
There are certain performances you see in your lifetime which leave a profound effect on you and Madam Butterfly was one of those moments for me. It is a story about love and abandonment and I found myself still welling up with tears the next day.
Giacomo Puccini also had one of those deep experiences when he went to watch David Belasco’s play, ‘Madam Butterfly : A Tragedy of Japan’ in London. The narrative was to become his next opera.
Act One begins in a chilling way with a line of hands pressing on the white screen - as if the residents of this area are trying to find a way out but have no chance of escape.
The screen rises but, instead of a typical Japanese scene, we are met with a two tier house - similar to two rectangular insect rearing boxes placed on top of the other perhaps symbolising that we are voyeurs whilst this tragic tale spins out.
The 15 year old geisha, Cio-Cio-San, at the centre of the story, may be known as Madam Butterfly, but this particular ‘insect’ will never fly from her box.
The tale unfolds when Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy is at the house he is leasing from Goro, a marriage broker.
Goro tells him that the house comes with three servants and a geisha wife known as Madam Butterfly. The lease runs for 999 years, with the right to cancel the agreement every month.
Sharpless, the American Consul, arrives and shares his concern that he believes Butterfly has fallen deeply in love with Pinkerton and is worried the Lieutenant may damage her wings as he is not taking the marriage seriously.
Sharpless and Pinkerton drink whiskey together. Sharpless toasts Pinkerton’s distant family and Pinkerton replies, “And the day I get married with a true wedding to a real American bride.”
Suzuki, Butterfly’s loyal servant, spends time fussily preparing the bedroom with fragrance and rose petals. Butterfly arrives with her bridesmaids for the wedding ceremony.
Sharpless appears infatuated by Butterfly. He asks if she is from Nagasaki and remarks on her pretty name. She tells him that she was born into a prosperous family but they lost everything and she became a geisha to support her mother financially .
During this Act Butterfly unpacks her belongings and tells Pinkerton her most treasured one is a gift from her father, but the audience does not see what is contained in the case which she holds tightly to her chest.
She discloses that she went to the Christian mission in order to change her ancestral religion so that she can pray to the same God as Pinkerton. Soon after a simple ceremony takes place - no vows, just the signing of marriage papers.
This happy moment is short-lived due to the bass tones of the high priest and Madam Butterfly’s uncle, The Bonze, barging in. He is furious that she has converted to Christianity and as she has renounced her family they will do the same. “May torments threaten your soul.”
Act two opens with a kitchen on the bottom floor and Suzuki cooking for a little boy, his paintings stuck on the cupboards. We notice the house has become untidy and dirty with laundry and rubbish piled high and the bed unmade.
Three years have passed and Butterfly and Suzuki have run out of money. Butterfly is adamant Pinkerton will return but Goro continues to bring her suitors, in particular he wants her to marry Prince Yamadori but she has no feelings for him.
Sharpless has received a letter from Pinkerton to which Butterfly lights up exclaiming, “I am the happiest woman in Japan.” On hearing the sound of the harbour cannon she springs into life and with Suzuki’s help tidies and decorates the house with flowers.
I was so in awe of the lighting, designed by Elanor Higgins, throughout the opera. Whilst Butterfly waits for Pinkerton to arrive the lighting turns from light blue to a deep violet as it gets late into the evening.
During this time Butterfly, her son and Suzuki sit with their backs to the audience on the bed whilst the chorus sings the beautifully ethereal, “Humming Chorus” which yanked at my heartstrings.
Night becomes day and exhausted from waiting up all night Butterfly is asleep. Pinkerton arrives with his American wife and Sharpless and he tells Suzuki not to wake his previous bride.
News has reached Pinkerton that he has a son and he and his wife want to adopt him. Suzuki is asked to help break the news to Butterfly.
When Butterfly awakes she sees Pinkerton’s wife and only agrees that they can adopt her son if Pinkerton fetches him.
She cannot live with her child believing she has abandoned him and the gift from her father is then revealed - a hand gun which she uses to shoot herself. Pinkerton arrives to find her dead and is filled with remorse.
This is not just an opera but a piece of art unfolding before your eyes. The soft tones of blue, pinks and greys were beautiful against the stark white house.
The real wow moment for me was when the marriage party was gathered and the bottom of the house rippled with the waves of the sea whilst the top storey was lit up with blue sky and clouds. Pink confetti rained downwards and then became fluttering pink butterflies flying towards the sky.
I felt privileged to watch such a beautiful opera and Alexia Voulgaridou who played Madam Butterfly was world class.
Her performance of, ‘One Fine Day’ was heart wrenching. I was also impressed by the fact she was an incredible actress, which can also be said of Kezia Bienek who played Suzuki who has also been blessed with a beautiful voice.
Special mention must also be given to Gareth Brynmor John who gave a solid performance and played the Consul with true integrity, and the wonderful orchestra.
by Jenny Rainbird
To see the next performance by the Welsh National Opera visit: wno.org.uk
To book tickets for the next show at the Mayflower Theatre go to: www.mayflower.org.uk