Pinkerton and Butterfly 

Leonardo Caimi as Pinkerton and Joyce El Khoury as Butterfly,  Cio Cio San. Pictures: Richard Hubert Smith

Madame Butterfly

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


It’s interesting – or strange – how you can tell almost from the first curtain up whether an opera, or show, is going to hit that vital mark. Whether it’s going to be, say, just perfectly OK; more than adequate; largely pleasing; or something that takes a production on to a whole new plane; not so much vocally – these days you can almost take that for granted with a national, indeed International, company such as WNO; but visually, so that the whole conception and likely directorial approach can be sensed even in the opening images: the look of the thing, the impact of the set, the freshness of the likely conception.

Welsh National Opera has so often delivered stagings that are miraculous in their visual impact, their deep relevance, their revealing of new facets of an opera, or at least thrilling, teasing and instructive presentations of both mainstream and less familiar operas, it’s difficult to count them. The Queen of Spades, Billy Budd, Káťa Kabanová, Moses and Aaron; Lohengrin, War and Peace; or to go back further, Gloriana, John Metcalf’s Tornrak, Maxwell Davies’ The Doctor of Myddfai. 

Is this Butterfly up there with the best? Stunning in every respect.

You bet it is. Isabella Bywater, who has designed at least two major operas at St. Petersburg’s (I nearly said Leningrad’s) Mariinsky theatre, has come up. presumably in collaboration with, or on instruction/request from, the director, a revolving stage which permits four – or more, when angled on – different views of the location where Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) must ply her trade as a Geisha girl, to make enough money to keep her widowed mother and herself, both achingly poor, financially afloat. 

Revolving stages – three or four way – are not of course per se a new idea. In fact they are employed pretty often. But they do enable a set to be altered with less complication than a complete proscenium stage (although this was, of course, behind the Hippodrome’s huge proscenium). It focuses our eyes on something which draws us in, and by being more compact, paradoxically can open up somehow into something that feels even larger.

The colour of the main (bed)room, for what we see is the same room, but with various approaches and stairways which are used to considerable effect as the mood of the piece, and its heroine, is essentially (and aptly) lilac. But lighting director Elanor Higgins serves up such a brilliant variety of shifting colours surrounding it – split cyclorama, enveloping blues including sea, and two stupendous moments when butterflies, and then rose petals fall across the set and even the performers - that the lights are a very big, and miraculously successful, aspect of this staging. They are utterly uplifting.

Sharpless and Butterfly 

Mark Stone as Sharpless and Joyce El Khoury as Cio Cio San

Below, for later scenes, a humble kitchen and laundry room; upstairs, more tellingly, a bathroom. Why? We may have wondered. But its innocence will at the close be devastatingly shattered, for that is where Butterfly, by yet another swing of the whirligig, is found dead and (very) bloody by her disloyal lover, Pinkerton.

Do we believe Pinkerton’s claim to feel guilty, shame-filled, sympathetic with her abandoned state? Not for a moment, even though he now knows she has borne him a son. The little boy, incidentally, was quite a star of the show, actually played here by a tiny girl (Zoe Broido-Green and Sabrina Rose Ruscoe, doubling). The way this little waif remembered movement after movement, detail after detail, was quite remarkable. Chalking the wall with flowers – green stalks, the pink heads (for Pinkerton’s return) – fabulous, and innocently moving. A glorious not just idea from the director, but achievement of the child.

Lindy Hume, the Australian Director who has worked extensively both in the Antipodes and in America, had got this profoundly affecting staging worked out to near perfection. In some ways her moves were dictated by the set, although in a manner she herself must certainly have devised.

There were moments – for example when at the end (I think) of Act II part I Butterfly faces out from the window – but on the far side, directly away from us, which somehow portends a finale - how it all might end.

Hume adds a slightly condescending didactic programme note, advising us about the modern ‘relevance;’ of the story, that it needn’t be set in Japan, but that such cruelty or abuse (Cio is after all 15) can happen anywhere, and as if an audience might not by empathising with the heroine assimilate the fact that these things happen today, and anywhere.

As if anyone mightn’t deduce that from Puccini and librettists Ilica and Giacosa’s masterpiece. Universality, and spectators’ identification with any tragedy, is a fact of the stage, play or opera. You don’t have to point that out with Ibsen, or King Lear. It’s stating the obvious.

suzuki and Butterfly 

Anna Harvey as Suzuki, Joyce El Khoury as Cio Cio San

Sharpless is played, through the run, by the splendid baritone Mark Stone. Sharpless is in some ways a less effective figure than you’d expect a Consul in a major city to be. But then, he is caught right in the middle of a personal, not diplomatic, crisis. And one which he had striven to avert. Stone, hurtling or moving tentatively up and down stairs, a symbol perhaps of his hopeless intermediary role, cuts a particularly effective figure as this vainly striving figure, upright and correct and sympathetic, but ultimately ineffective.

Stone’s singing is always first-class: a resonant, rich sound that fares well in a role as opposite as could be – that of the obsessive, doomed and disaster-exuding Rigoletto: again, an opera where we can feel the end building and imploding. Sharpless has a much fuller role than I remembered. This was quite ably brought out by the direction here, even though some of his moves render him – fractionally dull. He can be made solider.

It’s difficult to review a Cio-cio-san, because the role is so staggeringly intense, so poignant at every turn, so childlike in fact, that it has to draw in a superlatively well-cast singer. But – her acting being exquisite – Joyce El-Khoury, Canadian soprano, is a wonderful find. She has experienced female tragedy in Puccini already, as Liu (Turandot, in Toronto); here, her ability to express hope, optimism, dreams (much of the latter part of Act I is about flowers, the sky, water), anticipation, fear, deep distress, is a model of how to present the role. So too her interaction with the child, as also with the box of precious items which include her father’s suicidal knife which she, seeing no way out and no hope in this world, will ultimately turn on herself.

One special thing about El-Khoury. She can sing the high notes, of course, just as should any Queen of the Night. But she has a lovely way of not pounding, but – as we sometimes say – fluting a high note. In other words, the higher she goes, the more amazing the diminuendo. This is artistry of a high order; a joy to hear – or almost, not to hear. Wonderful. She, to our delight, is superbly directed.

It is not only the mother who interacts with the child. Anna Harvey’s Suzuki comes more and more to the fore, and her responses, reactions and growing doubt and tension made a considerable contribution to some of the most telling moments of this production. Her part curiously (perhaps appropriately) grows during the scene in the typically ordinary kitchen and washroom with loo (which she quickly closes); washing machine (which, if used by other 15 year olds, may have seen a fair amount of blood, and more); and presumably dryer. Suzuki’s movements become quicker, more agitated, a different kind of freneticism from Butterfly’s She understands, and has a significant intuition about the feelings of her mistress, and of men. She’s shrewd.

The other male role one would prefer to pick out is Goro the marriage-broker: Tom Randle. How well one remembers him in one of his glorious early roles: the beloved but doomed Essex in Britten’s Gloriana. That opera was in fact brilliantly brought back to life by WNO; but on this occasion Randle was singing for an acclaimed Opera North production opposite Josephine Barstow’s Elizabeth I.

The Bronze 

Keel Watson as The Bonze and Alexia Voulgaridou who sings Cio Cio San in some performances

Goro is not always a prime piece of casting in productions of Butterfly, but this was front-runner quality. His fussing was not overdone, but he was cleverly alert to every small happening, a spy in fact, as such a wheeler-dealer must be. What disgusts us about him is that he actually knows the marriage deal that Butterfly is tricked into is dissoluble; ie despite the presence of the Registrar and Commissioner, is somehow phoney. So, there are two characters one has to despise.

Not the uncle, the fearsome Bonze (the splendid Keel Watson, another piece of admirable casting), whose bombast actually reflects the truth, even though the tradition he asserts is also a kind if prison. With the death of Graham Vick, founder and magician of Birmingham Opera Company, Watson has lost one of his earliest, and most loyal and dedicated promoters. It is always good to see how his formidable talents – massive presence, massive bass – have been picked up by companies not just across England (Royal Opera, Holland Park, Opera North) but across Europe. He is one of our most talented operatic presences today. The force of a Commendatore, the might of a Grand Inquisitor. The chorus that surrounded him was a bit old fashioned style, corny. But the WNO chorus unseen, or recessed, was, as always, excellent, and excellently trained (David Doidge).

Difficult to enthuse about Pinkerton’s character in any way; or indeed his unfortunately conniving wife Kate (Sophie Yelland), she who here on meeting Cio-cio-san perceives the pain she is inflicting, but is impotent, or too suppressed, to affect the fatal procedure – the removal of the child. A case of a time when the father’s wish inescapably took precedence over the mother’s. Pinkerton is, forgive me, a selfish bastard, a shit, and – ominous for the future - Kate (they have both only just learned, from Sharpless, of the existence of the child, and have taken a precipitate decision) is perhaps beginning to see just that.  

Leonardo Caimi, despite his promotional blurb/profile (‘a velvety tone and elegant musicality as well as his excellent acting’ didn’t really justify any but the middle one of that collection. There is a comic moment when Butterfly refers to his ‘height’, something which also doesn’t quite seem to be realised. Pinkerton is a thoroughly ordinary man whose only aspiration is to get her knickers off: plain, dull, though somehow here not believably randy (a common fault with Pinkertons). He sings his socks off, and though the sound is not entirely pleasing, he makes a very good stab at the high-rising tenor Puccini demands. He shone quite enough to justify his role in this production. And if there is a lack of character, it’s Puccini’s fault, not his.

One endlessly moving aspect of Madam Butterfly is that is offers the longest pre-coital delay one can easily think of. Puccini’s librettists fill the text with the most beautiful imagery, all of which serves to prolong the dream and heighten the teenage Cio-cio-san’s innocence. All this requires the most sensitive playing and conducting of those in the orchestra pit. Carlo Rizzi, Music Director of WNO during 13 years, and now Conductor Laureate, has a gift of turning everything he touches to gold. They are fortunate every time he takes the helm, which is still, thankfully, often.

Thus these wistful passages had an almost roseate odour in the music, more than just ‘atmosphere’, more often like an opening flower. ‘Scented’ is how one might describe the orchestra’s playing under him. The outbursts were powerful, but this is the aspect one will most remember. WNO’s former production had become almost tediously tired. All gone:

Roderic Dunnett



Index page Hippodrome Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre