It was time to get the tissues out at Milton Keynes Theatre last night as the 2016 Glyndebourne Tour retold the story of Giacomo Pucccini’s famous Japanese-based tragic opera, Madama Butterfly.
Annilese Miskimmon’s production updates Puccini’s 1902 story to the 1950s and while I’ve never actually seen the original, I’m certainly well acquainted with the late 1980s spin-off, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s wonderful Miss Saigon which takes us headlong into the 1960s and the Vietnam War.
The first act is set in the red light-like district of downtown Nagasaki amid the tattoo parlours and bars where US Navy Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin ‘B F’ Pinkerton (played by Matteo Lippi) takes advantage of a convenient local custom at Goro’s Marriage Bureau.
The sleazy Goro provides a service where you can get yourself a pretty young geisha bride for as long as you wish… and you can dissolve the marriage quite easily providing you have enough cash!
Women are chosen from Goro’s large catalogue and while Pinkerton also rents a house from him, he gets to marry a beautiful Japanese former geisha called Cio-Cio-San (played by Karah Son) who is better known as Butterfly.
The inexperienced 15-year-old arrives in Nagasaki from the countryside with a suitcase of meagre possessions accompanied by an entourage of relations, several of whom are against Butterfly’s hastily arranged wedding ceremony.
Marriage broker Goro (superbly played by Alun Rhys-Jenkins) doesn’t care about any of the women at his agency, just as long as he gets the cash – much as Jonathan Pryce did when he was cast as ‘The Engineer’ in Miss Saigon!
The carefree Pinkerton is in his element, his new wife has completely fallen for him and she’s also changed her religion to his against her family’s wishes. But when American Consul Sharpless (Francesco Verna) comes calling, he warns Pinkerton that the girl will not be easily shaken off following their sham arrangement.
Meanwhile the opera’s first love-duet is sung between Butterfly and Pinkerton against a backdrop of a GI Brides film which makes the American slightly uncomfortable, while Japanese girl realises she should now have a much better life. The whole scene certainly sends a chill through the audience as he dries her tears of joy.
With romance having blossomed, Butterfly casts off her kimono and is seen dressed in a smart blue two-piece suit which Pinkerton presents her with just before he sails away for three years on naval duty.
However unbeknown to him, Butterfly gives birth to a son which she names ‘Sorrow’, promising to change it to ‘Joy’ once her husband returns. Having promised to come back, he sends Sharpless with a letter for Butterfly although he fails to divulge the fact that the lieutenant has now married an America – and those familiar with Miss Saigon will guess what comes next!
Pinkerton’s new blonde wife Kate (played by Marta Fontanals-Simmons) arrives in Japan from the USA and while the penniless Butterfly stands with Sorrow (who is dressed in his father’s white navy jacket) to see his ship, the SS Abraham Lincoln, sail into Nagasaki harbour. She immediately orders her maid Suzuki (Claudia Huckle) to prepare the house in readiness for his arrival by covering a large area with flower petals which are scattered from the Stars and Stripes flag.
The upshot is that Pinkerton goes to the house when Butterfly is resting but he quickly leaves again before she awakes. It is then that Butterfly quickly guesses that he has married again when Kate arrives at her door. The tall American bride already knows of the child and brings along a model ship for the youngster, having agreed to adopt him – and you’ve probably already guessed the rest!
It all comes down to that tragic ending, with Butterfly committing suicide with the self same knife that her father had used when he committed hari-kari several years earlier. Once again the scene brought a tear to my eye just as it had at the end of Miss Saigon… I loved it!
Matteo Lippi is great as the sometimes cowardly and yet remorseful Pinkerton – well he does avoid that final confrontation! – his wonderful rich tenor voice absolutely dominating act one. The part was originally made famous by the great Enrico Caruso but Lippi has real quality and power as did baritone Francesco Verna as the bureaucratic US Consul Sharpless.
Claudia Huckle is excellent as Suzuki and together with Karah Son, they sing Puccini’s Flower Duet. Meanwhile the wonderful ‘Un bel di, vedremo’ aria sung by Butterfly in act two brings out all the emotion. It’s easily the best-known song in the whole opera and is performed to perfection. Soprano Son is absolutely brilliant and fully deserved her standing ovation at the final curtain. She added emotion by the bucket load and her vocal range seemed to know no bounds.
Unfortunately Glyndebourne’s three act Madama Butterfly was a one night only affair and was sung entirely in Italian but with English supertitles projected high above the stage. Full marks to the whole cast and the 30-plus piece orchestra under conductor John Wilson.
The set design and lighting were also excellent and hopefully the Glyndebourne company will be back in Milton Keynes again next autumn. If you missed them this time around, make sure to see one of their productions in 2017.
Tonight (Thursday) Glyndebourne have a ‘Behind the Curtains’ evening while tomorrow they present Mozart’s comic opera Don Giovanni. Tickets are still available from the Box Office, by calling 0844 871 7652 or by visiting www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (booking fees apply).