butterfly and Pinkerton

Alexia Voulgaridou as  Cio-Cio-San and Leonardo Caimi as Pinkerton.

Pictures: Clive Barda

Madame Butterfly

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


What a stunning reworking of a classic opera from WNO, a magnificent Madame Butterfly to bring it bang up to date and relevant with a fabulous contemporary staging around Puccini's wonderful music.

The modernised version still has the US naval officer marrying an underage Japanese teenager but that is almost an aside, with the emphasis on a tragic love story.

Here Cio-Cio-San is not seen so much as a teen who has fallen for a dashing American with the wealth to provide her with a home, but as a woman, and a cruelly wronged woman at that.

Pinkerton, might still be a naval officer, but we never see him in uniform, instead he is in a suit, a rather brash, arrogant and gold credit card wealthy man of the world.

The setting might still be Nagasaki, as we are told, but we no longer have a Japanese house with paper walls, this is , glass and concrete cubic house moving us on a century from Puccini’s original 1904 setting and in truth, it could be set anywhere. Costumes are contemporary with nothing Japanese in sight.

The use of frosted glass walls, three sides of another cube to create the stage around the revolving house, adds another modernistic reminder that this has become an opera for today.

Butterfly is 15, the libretto tells us so, but in this version, the age is a mention in passing, this is not so much a story of a man and child, which would be a somewhat different story in these times, but more of a man and woman and a doomed relationship.


butterfly and suzuki

Alexia Voulgaridou as  Cio-Cio-San and Kezia Bienek as Suzuki 

You suspect Cio-Cio-San was little more than a diversion for Pinkerton when he was stationed in Japan, she was a pleasant distraction, a trophy bride for a man stationed far from home. For Butterfly this was the real thing, for Pinkerton a sort of one posting stand.

When he returns to the USA the affair, the foreign fling, is over, forgotten, and he can go back to his real life, get married, with a proper, American wife, and live happily ever after – until he is told that Butterfly has a child, his son.

She has waited for his return for years and when he finally arrives the scene is set for the inevitable tragedy.

Italian tenor Leonardo Caimi is just stupendous as Pinkerton, with a rich, pure, smooth tone throughout his considerable range. He is just a joy to listen to, and, not only that, he can act. His cockiness as he signs the dubious marriage papers almost taking ownership of Butterfly, is assured and rather distasteful, while his realisation of what he has done an how he has wronged Butterfly is heartfelt.

It is a wonderful performance matched by Greek soprano Alexia Voulgarddou as Cio-Cio-San who virtually carries the second act alone. Un bel dì, vedremo (One fine Day) is one of the best known arias in opera, a party piece for sopranos, and she made it the highlight of the opera – what a voice.

Again, she can act as well as sing and we see Butterfly’s full range of emotions, her happiness at her wedding, her anticipation that her husband will return, excitement when he arrives and despair when the truth dawns.

The pair turn this into a modern drama with rejection, betrayal, despair and that most fatal of Japanese of traits, honour, at its heart.

set pic

The wonderful flexible revolving set with  Gareth Brynmor John as tl, Sharpless, Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San and Tom Randle as matchmaker matchmaker Gozo

It all starts off on a downer when Butterfly’s uncle, the family head, the Bonze, sung by imposing bass Keel Watson, is furious that Cio-Cio-San has converted to Christianity and tells the entire family to renounce her, which will leave her pretty much alone when Pinkerton leaves.

Warning Pinkerton of the dangers of his marriage and then trying hard to mitigate the damage is baritone Gareth Brynmor John as the US Consul, Sharpless, while mezzo-soprano Kazia Bienek shines as Butterfly’s maid and confident Suzuki.

The marriage was arranged by the matchmaker Gozo, sung by tenor Tom Randle, who is trying to earn another fee by arranging a second marriage for Butterfly with the rich Prince Yamadori, sung by tenor Neil Balfour.

There is also another star of the show with the animated conductor of the excellent WNO orchestra, James Southall, who lives and breathes every note and every emotion, quietly singing every word. Fascinating to watch.

Isabella Bywater’s cube upon cube design is masterful and the revolving house a revelation, particularly in the second act when we can move from exterior wall to kitchen to laundry room to rubbish under the stairs.

And for those who think the Covid pandemic is over, WNO had nine electricians in the crew in Birmingham and all have now tested positive which meant, as they operated the lights, a frantic day of leaning the cues. There may well have been things missed from the lighting script, even things wrong, but we will never know, all that matters is that if we had not been told we would never have known. The design, the lighting, everything all worked to provide a stunning new version directed by Lindy Hume all set to Puccini’s soaring and emotive score.

Roger Clarke


Madame Butterfly now moves on to Llandudno, Liverpool and Southampton


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