Wednesday 23 October 2019

A century of American foreign policy foreshadowed in an opera?

Madama Butterfly

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin Until tonight, then Cork Opera House on April 4 & 5

Magic touch: Byrne and Hubbard in Madama Butterfly
Magic touch: Byrne and Hubbard in Madama Butterfly

Katy Hayes

Giacomo Puccini's opera premiered in 1904 and has since become one of the most enduring and influential musical-theatre offerings of all time. Irish National Opera, now in its second year, continues to provide sturdy vehicles for the internationally established Irish singing stars to perform for home audiences. Popular soprano Celine Byrne sings the hugely demanding lead here and has a magic touch.

Madama Butterfly, or Cio-Cio-San, is a 15-year-old Japanese girl who is married off to the American cad Pinkerton. Pinkerton marries her for convenient sex, in the knowledge that he can easily divorce her under lax local laws. The American may not love Cio-Cio-San properly, but the audience always does. Tenor Julian Hubbard, as the cad, got booed at the curtain on the opening night: a tribute to his subtle villainy.

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Mezzo-soprano Doreen Curran, as Suzuki the maid, provides a strong, realistic counterbalance to Byrne's lyrical self-delusion; tenor Eamonn Mulhall has fun as Goro, the wheedling marriage broker; and baritone Brett Polegato is nicely conflicted as the American consul, Sharpless. Cio-Cio-San's little son, Sorrow, played on opening night by Jordi McQuaid Román, pulls expertly at the heartstrings.

Conductor Timothy Redmond steers the RTÉ Concert Orchestra through the magnificent music, building to the major climaxes of Act 3. The percussion instruments, responsible for much of the Asian musical inflections, are delightfully visible in the parterre boxes.

Director Ben Barnes chooses an unspecific 1950s or 60s setting, using war footage from Vietnam and Cambodia in the musical bridge between Act 2 and Act 3. The aim is to make a comment on American interventions in Asia in general, rather than any ­specific instance. This broad brushstroke softens the sense of place and initially feels timid. But it ultimately works well, once you figure out what it's doing.

It points to one of the most curious aspects of Puccini's groundbreaking work. At the dawn of the 20th century, an Italian composer roundly criticises American foreign policy as an exercise in grubby global exploitation. Puccini's music is so much in support of Cio-Cio-San, and gears the audience's sympathy accordingly, it is as though Puccini foresaw the following century's disastrous American interventions in Asia in some form of grand operatic precognition. He had an uncanny vision of the future of music, but also of global politics.


Haunted by ghosts of the past

Ireland's Call Viking Theatre, Clontarf Until tonight

James grew up in a dreary Coolock housing estate, reared by his kind grandmother after the death of his junkie parents. Written and performed by John Connors, this monologue play gives an account of how he and his two pals, English and Pato, fall into serious drug-dealing following some low-key recreational dabbling.

James's junkie dad had been a useless father and died young but James gains comfort from his memory all the same. When an aggressor pursuing him after a party gets knocked down by a moped, James attributes this intervention to his father's presence. James's grandfather was a victim of the industrial school at Letterfrack and that damage has filtered down the generations. He is haunted by his lineage in a way that brings both trauma and comfort.

The play isn't especially original; the material will be familiar to anyone who saw recent Irish film Cardboard Gangsters, which Connors also wrote and starred in. There is little subtlety to the story; not much is left for the audience to figure out. But there is relish in seeing such a good actor up close; and Connors, directed by Jimmy Smallhorne, slips nimbly between amiableness and intense emotion, ensuring this is a moving and memorable night.

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