Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Friday 24 May 2019

Madama Butterfly: A song of love and vile betrayal

Madama Butterfly

Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin

Celine Byrne in the title role of Irish National Opera's production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly
Celine Byrne in the title role of Irish National Opera's production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly

The INO has pinned down a fine Butterfly, says Emer O'Kelly.

For his Irish National Opera production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Ben Barnes (founding director of Opera Theatre Company back in the day) has decided to make the unpleasant Lt Pinkerton an exemplar of everything that is and was wrong with colonialism/imperialism. It doesn't quite work, because the topic is too complex for an examination within a single opera, even one of the greatest and most romantically popular.

Barnes does it by inserting documentary footage of US troops in battle format during various combats since 1904; it makes for ugly viewing, but somehow the impulse is to park it and deal with it later.

There is enough to deal with in Puccini's original story from 1904: it speaks loudly and valiantly against exploitation by the powerful of the weak at all levels of society. It needs no more than itself to make its point.

And it's worth remembering that Madama Butterfly caused a certain amount of outrage when it received its US debut, with its portrayal of the cynical (for which read downright immoral) actions of Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the US Navy, stationed in Japan where he takes advantage of a conniving law that allows him to make a "monthly marriage". It was seen (correctly) as a slur on American military manhood.

Fascinated by the 15-year- old Geisha known as Butterfly, he goes through this form of "marriage", boasting to the American Consul all the while that he looks forward to returning to the US and marrying a fine American bride.

Except little Butterfly believes in her marriage, is deeply in love with the exploitative Pinkerton, and even cuts herself off from her own family by becoming a Christian.

The inevitable outcome of this vile betrayal, and clash of cultures, has given the world of opera one of its most famous and exquisite arias, as Butterfly sings Un bel di ("One fine day I shall see his ship return.") And Pinkerton does return - two years later, with his all-American bride, to confront Butterfly and complete his savagery by taking her little son back to the US.

The INO production at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre (and this week at the Cork Opera House) stars soprano Celine Byrne, celebrated as much for her Irishness as her glorious voice. The latter's lyricism is perfectly suited to the role, but physically her performance does somewhat lack the fragility inherent in Butterfly's trusting soul. Equally, Julian Hubbard's Pinkerton has a subtle sensitivity that sits somewhat uneasily with his boorish character.

In fact, it's baritone Brett Polegato as Sharpless the Consul, who most accurately projects the character of his role as the uneasy and rather shocked face of officialdom.

Mezzo Doreen Curran's Suzuki is also perfectly in agonised tune with the tragedy as the faithful Suzuki, while John Molloy's always impressive stature serves him well in the bass role of The Bonze.

Eamonn Mulhall as Goro, Niamh O'Sullivan (Kate Pinkerton), Brendan Collins as Prince Yamadori and Robert McAllister as the Imperial Commissioner complete the supporting roles.

Todd Rosenthal's set and Joan O'Clery's costumes fit well with Barnes's concept for the opera, but the 1940s' tone sets it firmly post World War II - which historically hangs together, but removes any real sense of oriental delicacy. The video work is by Aaron Kelly.

Timothy Redmond conducts the RTE Concert Orchestra, and they deliver this romantic score with aplomb, under leader Mia Cooper.

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