Madam Butterfly, Oxford Playhouse

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Puccini’s masterpiece is reworked in this latest production from Opera Up Close, sung in English. In a run-down back street of 1980s Nagasaki we meet Pinkerton (Thomas Kinch), an American businessman. Gordon (Jonathan Cooke), a provider of “girlfriend experiences”, brings him Cio Cio San (Mariam Tamari), a local girl with little family and a tragic past. While Pinkerton’s affections are temporary from the outset, the same is not true for Cio Cio San. After their “wedding night”, she waits  Three years later, he does return, with a new fiancee in tow, and flees before he even sees Cio Cio San. You do not need to be an opera aficionado to know this does not end well.

In a new orchestration by Ruth Chan, four instrumentalists make up the sound, including Richard Stagg doing double-duty on the Shakuhachi and the Western Flute. This adds another element of Japanese music to those traditional tunes which were incorporated by Puccini himself. New motifs (notably the US national anthem) were delicately introduced while the heart and soul of the score remained, at a new, audience-friendly running time of two hours.

This production from a team of predominantly female creatives balances a reverence for Puccini with respect for the culture he characterised so problematically. Poppy Burton-Morgan (of In The Willows fame, ravely reviewed here last year) further proves her worth as a Director, but as Librettist employed some stilted turns of phrase which jarred on occasion. Too much reverence for Puccini, perhaps?

Thomas Kinch’s powerful top notes somewhat stole the first half. His delivery was boastful with little in the way of light and shade, which suited the character well. Tamari’s performance in the first half was delicate and understated (and at times little difficult to hear) but soared with lyrical emotions in the second act, fitting the development of the character. It paired beautifully with the wonderful tones of Suzuki (Jane Monari), who deftly portrayed Cio Cio San’s companion as steadfast, yet conflicted.

The two-level set, designed by Cindy Lin, was used to its full advantage, and even managed to make a visible on-stage musical ensemble an asset rather than a distraction. Lin was also responsible for costume design, successfully bringing out the increasing Americanisation of Cio Cio San and her “marital” home even in the absence of her “husband”.

There is so much to praise in this production, yet overall for me it fell a little short. Whether it was the ordinariness of the setting, the occasional incongruous rhyme or the light relief of some (excellent) puppeteering, I just wasn’t as swept away with emotion as the story and score deserved. Ultimately, my brain loved it, but my heart wasn’t stirred.

You’ll have to be quick if you want to catch this in London (18 February, Stratford Circus), but keep a eye out for it as it tours elsewhere in England: https://www.operaupclose.com/madam-butterfly

 

 

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