Madama Butterfly - Five* Review

It is no easy matter to pull off Madam Butterfly. It requires an utterly convincing lead, for a tragic figure who must be equal to the ardent, visionary poetry of the text as much as to portraying the collapse of hope which leads to the hapless jilted girl’s ultimate demise. At least three other characters have to measure up to the demands of the tragedy. No amount of loose or casual direction can be permitted, given the delicacy of the subject and the subtle refinement demanded by every scene, and virtually every move. One might have guessed that Bury Court Opera has the team and the ingredients to deliver such a production: and this was patently the case with their latest production, a Butterfly of such sensitivity and insight that it scored in every possible way.

Bury Court stages its productions in an intimate barn – one rich in atmosphere – on the eastern border of Hampshire, near Farnham. It serves up all the extras – it’s possible to dine there (very well), to sip champagne, to relish the farm-like outbuildings. But it has managed to preserve this intimacy by avoiding grandeur: the clientele is not city elite, and everyone mingles easily, cast and production team as well.

Butterfly starts off with one massive bonus: its orchestra, the Southbank Sinfonia, under its founder and conductor Simon Over, is recognisably one of the best around. London- based (at St. John’s, Waterloo), it takes its able forces often to the provinces, and indeed abroad (Italy is a favourite). It is immensely strong because from the start, Over provided a haven for young players fresh out of music college, who in those early years sometimes lacked for regular work, having to tout around for occasional employment with various forces. The standards were there from the start, because Over, showing still to this day an eye for young talent, established a hard-working regime which immediately advanced the skills, rather than just drawing on them, of his youthful charges.

All of that was evident throughout this Madam Butterfly. Each department of the ensemble – from David Merseguer Royo’s lucid timpani upwards – seemed really well versed in the demands of Puccini’s by no means simple score. The balances were markedly good. The orchestral reduction retained paired clarinets, and they together, or offset by others of the (largely single) woodwind were responsible for a good deal of the subtlety and colouring in Puccini’s score; but so too were even the brass, ever responsive to the staggeringly poetic and idealised libretto, in which the Japanese hinterland or the view over Nagasaki Bay are brought vividly alive by the tender musings of young Cio-Cio-San, driven to play the upper class Geisha when poverty strikes her family.

Perhaps unusually, Bury Court made the inspired decision to cast two young Japanese singers in the principal role and that of her acolyte, Suzuki. These were performers of quite wonderful flexibility and imagination. Ayaka Tanimoto’s Suzuki alone could have held the stage, and the audience, mesmerised. This was a gorgeous, possibly unusual, mezzo, laden with undertow so that her every utterance gained in expressiveness. Her moves seemed natural, though obviously were partly stylised: her prayerful caution offset to splendid effect the youthful optimism of her younger charge.

Mamie Matsuda not only looked like Butterfly. She was Butterfly. Her Cio-Cio-San seemed not just girlish, but genuinely a girl. Her eager responsiveness and joyous rapture bore all the qualities of a girl of anything from 11 to 16 (by Act II she has gained three years) who has been given a new toy. Her moves were sheer delight to watch, her face passing in and out of the white light with which director Julia Burbach divided the story between dull, brute fact and the world of the imagination which is Butterfly’s lifeboat. Yet she lilted through every kind of mood, from schoolgirlish delight, her face a revelation each time yet somehow always different and varied, to the indignation of a mature young woman, as in command of her household as a moody paterfamilias. Her treatment of Suzuki, their almost chokingly close relationship manipulated as beautifully and artfully in Burbach’s staging as in Puccini’s ever-changing score, was an exemplary piece of acting. Their interplay provided the meat of this production, and Burbach, Bury Court’s impeccable and quite frankly masterly director, had worked wonders with establishing the unbelievably intense atmosphere that pervaded.

Lesser roles were well enough taken, my choice being the quite beautiful light tenor sound of British-based Australian Christopher Diffey, who made of Goro, the marriage-broker, a splendid, fretful, shivery character with a keen eye for acting detail that not everyone may have noticed. The seasoned Freddie Tong made an all-too brief appearance as the Bonze, Butterfly’s father. James Gower’s voice brought authority to the Imperial Commissioner, and baritone Nicolas Dwyer sang Yamadori, the suitor who might have got Butterfly out of her mess, with authority, though was, doubtless intentionally, stiffly directed. A nice touch crucial to the dénouement was Flora McIntosh’s Kate Pinkerton, more prominently placed than is often the case, clad in a gorgeous outfit of the period in a dusky pink, and symbolising all too painfully the future. It is she who offers to adopt what we must term her husband’s legitimate-cum-bastard child, and she who will indeed do so when Butterfly does herself in. There was a kind of inevitability in her presence, well-judged, and wholly apt.

The two men both hailed from Wales: RNCM and Guildhall-trained Elgan Llyr Thomas, despite many prizes, would seem not to have sung Pinkerton before. He was wholly sufficient both vocally and in the restrained acting the role requires. Pinkerton has to have a poetry about him to match the poetic dreams of Butterfly, and offset the stolidity of the naval officer. All this was forthcoming. Gareth Brynmor John is a more seasoned performer, with a good many operatic roles – Figaro’s Almaviva, Flute’s Papageno – behind him. He offered a genuinely thoughtful Sharpless, by the end guilt-ridden at the part he has played as a middle man, and attractive in the way he handles the quite deliberately melodious music Puccini attributes to him.

Having all four main characters reliably cast contributed greatly to the cogency of this Madam Butterfly. But what we were treated to was not just the atmosphere of the Barn setting, but a wonderful two-tier set from Naomi Dawson, a theatre designer of considerable stature and experience, who brought the stage enchantingly alive with a wondrous range of oriental touches, from plants and birdcages, Japanese lanterns and a sensationally atmospheric bird-filled tree, appropriate chests and seats, which had the gift of making Bury Court’s stage look strangely like a kind of children’s nursery: nothing could be more appropriate in this story of what I suppose would nowadays be called child abuse.

The chorus sang well, and was well-marshalled. But that was the case with every single move, every nervous fidget and flutter, of Julia Burbach’s production. She is a director whose attention to detail is second to none. You could put this Butterfly under a microscope and find nothing that was out of place, gratuitous or misjudged. Coupled with the many glorious moments from the orchestra, we were treated to a Butterfly that was pure poetry from start to finish. A fabulous achievement, and a real feather in Bury Court’s cap, as resplendent as any coat of many colours.

Roderic Dunnett