Holland Park, London

Classical review: Madama Butterfly - Head down to the park to see a stunning Butterfly take flight

4.00

 

Paul Higgins's staging of Madama Butterfly is not easy to watch, and nor should it be.

Such prettiness as there is in Puccini's 1904 opera – the Humming Chorus, the Flower Duet, the pointillist touches of harp and flute – only highlights the pitiless severity of a drama in which a teenage geisha is sold to, and abandoned by, an American naval officer, and their child is taken from her. Not a note or a word is wasted. The soundworlds of America and Japan are equally exotic in this French-perfumed Italian score, the first characterised by the bold arpeggio of "The Star-Spangled Banner", the second by brittle pentatonics. In Neil Irish's designs, an empty Shaker chair sits in front of the broad, cool line of shoji screens at the start of Act II. The blossom that falls as Cio-Cio San (Anne Sophie Duprels) waits for the return of Lieutenant Pinkerton (Joseph Wolverton) is soon trampled, its hue as bright as blood.

The tightness of focus in this production is established from the first, throaty scrambling of the City of London Sinfonia's strings under conductor Manlio Benzi, an urgent, urban soundtrack for a commercial transaction between the middle-aged "Yankee vagabondo" Pinkerton and the contemptuous pimp, Goro (Robert Burt). There are two Americas here: the unquestioning, unstoppable, expansionist America of Pinkerton, and the earnest, idealistic America of the consul Sharpless (David Stephenson), who delivers the most important line of Act I: "Be careful, she believes it". To Pinkerton, who pointedly appraises the maid Suzuki (Patricia Orr) as she arrives, Cio-Cio San is merely the most captivating of the fluttering Japanese women in their heavy, ornate costumes. To Sharpless, a more diligent student of a culture in which shame and honour are deeply felt, she is "the voice of sincerity".

Emphasising Cio-Cio San's youth is straightforward if you have a petite soprano. Duprels and Higgins do much more than this. Duprels' Butterfly is half-enchanted by adult sexuality, half-afraid, embittered by poverty, traumatised by her father's suicide, fiercely proud, reckless in her rejection of the old religion, stubborn. The tension between tradition and individuality is striking: while Duprels holds the formal poses of a geisha in Act I, Cio-Cio San's words are notably indiscreet. In Act II, three years later, the semi-Westernised woman who sings "Un bel di" ("One Fine Day") is half-mad with the effort of believing in a marriage that all others know to be a sham. The bloody conclusion of Act III, signalled early, is harrowing. Though the movement direction of the chorus needs refining, this is a Butterfly in which every detail of Puccini's score registers and in which Duprels' vocal lustre, physical energy, candour and sophistication leave you breathless.

Composed of the brightest and best of young European instrumentalists, the conductorless ensemble Spira Mirabilis (Queen Elizabeth Hall, London ***) rehearse a single work for just one week before performing it. Strauss's Metamorphosen, written for 23 solo strings in 1945, is the group's latest project, its quotation of the Funeral March from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony the tonal and stylistic touchstone. Playing of this calibre is intoxicating but with a work of this denseness and complexity, someone needs to impose a more architectural approach. For much of last weekend's performance, a halfway stop in the century-long survey The Rest is Noise, Spira played like a vastly expanded string quartet, democratically but without much flexibility. Clarity and transparency came belatedly, the silence at the end as expressive as the music that had gone before. Was Strauss lamenting the destruction of Dresden's opera house by Allied fire-bombs, or the destruction of an entire culture? We will never really know.

At Spitalfields Festival, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and Theatre of the Ayre (London ***)enjoyed a very public first date, finding just a little common ground in the music of the lutenist Robert Johnson (c.1583-c.1634) and his blues guitarist namesake (1911-1938). The Devil at the Crossroads mixed songs and dances from Jacobean London and Depression-era Mississippi. Sex and booze featured highly, from "Watkins Ale" to "Hot Tamales", with the three ukuleles, two lutes, plucked double bass, theorbo and baroque guitar sounding like the world's largest – and dirtiest – double harp. Sweetly informal, if a little under-spiced, it was an auspicious start to an improbable liaison.

'Madama Butterfly': to 4 July

 

Critic's Choice

Three conductors, the LSO and students from top music schools join forces in A Tribute to Sir Colin Davis, with music by Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, Mozart and Strauss, at the Barbican, London (Sunday and Tues). Britten's Church Parables come home as Mahogany Opera performs Curlew River (tonight and Tues) at Orford Church, Suffolk.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam