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Review: Opera North’s Madama Butterfly

· Ali Turner · Culture

Find out what our reviewer made of Puccini’s most famous opera.

Opera North's Madama Butterfly

Opera North kicked off their Fatal Passions season on Friday with a revival of Tim Albery’s Madama Butterfly. Find out what to expect…

Leeds Grand Theatre was sold out for the premiere of Opera North’s revival of Madama Butterfly, which is a testament to just how popular this opera is. But I’m going to start by saying something controversial – it’s not my favourite opera. That’s about as close to blasphemy as you can get in the opera world, this is one of Puccini’s most famous operas after all and the music is nothing short of incredible.

Opera North's Madama Butterfly

Credit: Richard H Smith

This is a classic ‘it’s me not you’ situation. Madama Butterfly is an opera of subtleties, and I like a bit of action. It’s simple, minimalist even – each act depicts just one day of the characters lives and the entire opera takes place in one house, although the set is ever-changing. It’s made of moving panels that are designed to reveal a new view of their world without ever leaving the house – and they’ve created a marvellous projection to communicate the passing of time.

The result is that the story becomes the entire focus – and it’s a tragic tale. Cio-Cio-San is a young geisha – she’s just 15 years old and Lieutenant Pinkerton has swept her off her feet. He’s bought the right to marry her, but she’s not doing it against her will, she’s head over heels in love with him. The problem is, he sees their marriage as temporary and she thinks it’s forever.

Opera North's Madama Butterfly

Credit: Richard H Smith

Why? Because in Japan, marriage contacts come with an exit clause – if a woman is abandoned for more than a month, it constitutes divorce. So Pinkerton views their marriage in the same way he sees the lease on his house – every month, he gets another chance to opt out. As the audience, you know what’s coming right from the start, but Cio-Cio-San is totally oblivious, so when she changes her religion and loses everyone she holds dear, the dread settles in.

The words are more important in Madama Butterfly than in other operas I’ve seen. Sometimes you can just watch the story unfold on stage, without checking the subtitles, but here, you need to know what they’re saying. The story is told through the narrative and entire conversations take place on stage.

Opera North's Madama Butterfly

Credit: Richard H Smith

Of course, it’s all acted out too – Cio-Cio-San’s transformation is clear as we move into the second act. Gone is her white painted face, her long hair and her kimono, replaced instead by a short, choppy bob and a 50s Americana dress. And that’s not the only change – Anne Sophie Duprels takes her Cio-Cio-San from sweet innocence and hopeless devotion to an almost manic obsession.

We’ve returned to the same house, but now Cio-Cio-San is alone with her servant – Suzuki is infinitely more loyal than Cio-Cio-San’s husband and Ann Taylor is incredible in the role. Pinkerton has been gone for three years, but she still desperately believes that he’ll return. It’s hard to watch.

Opera North's Madama Butterfly

Credit: Richard H Smith

The second act takes you through the motions – a marriage proposal rejected, a son revealed, a ship coming into harbour, but the ending feels inevitable. Cio-Cio-San will discover what we already know – that Pinkerton considers their marriage to be over, even if she does not.

This isn’t a play though, it’s an opera – and with Madama Butterfly, it’s the music, not the story that you’ll go home raving about. Puccini takes you from frivolity to passion, disappointment and tragedy, using his music to heighten the emotion.

Opera North's Madama Butterfly

Credit: Richard H Smith

The cast were exceptional – Anne Sophie Duprels, Ann Taylor and Peter Savidge, who plays the honest respectable Sharpless, have all followed this production through from its initial outing in 2007. This is their third time taking on these roles and you can tell. In contrast, Merūnas Vitulskis is playing Pinkerton for the first time, but he’s got all the charm and energy you could want – you’ll leave the theatre hating him though, he’s the bad guy in this story after all.

It may not be my favourite opera, but there’s a reason why Madama Butterfly is so popular. It promises 2 hours and 40 minutes of spine-tingling music, beautifully performed, and with the most lavish costumes – the geishas are a sight to behold and keep an eye out for those getas.

You can see Madama Butterfly at Leeds Grand Theatre until 28th February 2018.