Madam Butterfly, Royal Albert Hall, London
Tuesday 01 March 2011
Back by popular demand, David Freeman's staging for Raymond Gubbay of Puccini's tragedy of innocence, experience and colonialism has been adored nearly as much for its in-the-round design as its music. It takes place in a Japanese house ("a piece of origami," sings Pinkerton) amid a water garden on which candles float during the love duet; in the second half, when experience bites, the garden paved over. At the perimeter, impoverished locals wander by, occasionally stopping to pray at a Buddhist shrine, reminders of the culture our heroine tries to abandon for her feckless American bridegroom.
The best thing about the show is that it takes Butterfly on its own terms and focuses on the drama. It's both truthful and touching – when Butterfly's little boy pats her shoulder to comfort her, it's meant to tug our heartstrings, and, oh boy, does it succeed. And when Pinkerton's American wife, Kate, nearly collapses on witnessing Butterfly's death, one realises that this tragedy will have long-lasting effects.
Excellent singing all round on opening night. The true-toned lyric soprano Mihoko Kinoshita is a pure, passionate and strong-centred Butterfly, eminently capable of carrying the show. Philip O'Brien is suitably dashing and thoughtless as Pinkerton; Louis Otey is a very fine Sharpless the Consul, the well-intentioned architect of this dismal situation.
But... oh dear, that venue. The Royal Philharmonic and conductor Oliver Gooch do their best, but with the orchestra at such a remove from the stage, co-ordination inevitably lapses, the pace sags and the amplification makes it drag still further, while the acoustic suggests that the water garden is actually a swimming pool. Much jewelled detail in the score simply drowns, and while some of the English text can be heard, much can't. The busy staging involves much tramping up and down the auditorium's stairs and I nearly mistook two latecomers for part of the show. Still, as a popular staging in a large venue for a big audience, this Butterfly does its job as well as it possibly can.
To 13 March (0845 401 5045)
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