The challenge which every designer of opera at Holland Park must meet is that posed by the country-house façade, which constitutes a pre-existing and non-negotiable set.
If the opera requires a historical-baronial look, no change is needed, but if that look doesn’t fit, you’ve got to disguise it. Yannis Thavoris’s solution for the current production of Cavalleria Rusticana – which takes place in an Italian village – is to front it with a wall of orange crates. For Paul Higgins’s new production of Madama Butterfly, Neil Irish has obliterated it with the aid of a raised stage plus a quintessentially Japanese background of sliding screens.
So when Goro the marriage broker (Robert Burt) shows Joseph Wolverton’s Pinkerton round the house in which he is to live with Cio-Cio San, we feel properly grounded.
The illusion is strengthened by costumes which are faithfully in period: Goro’s tailcoat and skirts are as authentic as the robes in which Cio-Cio San, her servant Suzuki, and her attendant geishas appear. And it’s clear that the show’s French-Japanese movement-director Namiko Gahier-Ogawa has put everyone on stage through some rigorous training in the language of Japanese theatrical gesture: we feel this most intensely with the characterisation of Cio-Cio San’s family, with Barnaby Rea’s magnificently forbidding Bonze, and with the characterisation of Cio-Cio San herself.
For the way this Butterfly gestures and moves could have come straight out of the floating world of ukiyo-e prints: soprano Anne Sophie Duprels has absorbed that body-language so completely that she can use it to reinforce the expressiveness of her singing. And although her first appearance is over-miked, she settles into a performance which grows in beauty and plangency as the show progresses.
But the pleasure of this ‘Butterfly’ derives from the economy and restraint of its direction. There are no heavy anti-imperialist messages – just a star-spangled banner which periodically appears like a leitmotiv – and a single New England chair symbolising the new life Cio-Cio San dreams of. The singing – notably from Wolverton’s sweet-toned Pinkerton and from David Stephenson’s resonant Sharpless – is first-rate, as is the support from the pit under Manlio Benzi’s direction; the music of the nocturnal vigil is as magical as one could wish.
And the from the point when Cio-Cio San realises that she has been betrayed until the moment of her dignified death, Duprels holds us spellbound through the sheer conviction and power of her performance.