Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Eternity Opera sings triumphantly once again at Wellington’s Hannah Playhouse – Puccini’s Madam Butterfly

By , 16/11/2018

Eternity Opera presents:
PUCCINI – Madam Butterfly (Opera in Three Acts)
(libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa – sung in English)

Cast:  Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) – Hannah Catrin Jones
Pinkerton – Boyd Owen
Sharpless – Kieran Rayner
Suzuki – Laura Loach
Goro – Declan Cudd
The Bonze – Roger Wilson
Kate Pinkerton – Jess Segal
Mother – Ruth Armishaw
Cousin – Tania Dreaver
Aunt – Sally Haywood
Imperial Commissioner – Minto Fung
The Registrar – Chris Berentson
Yakuside – Garth Norman
Bridesmaids – Milla Dickens / Beatrix Poblacion Cariño
Butterfly’s son – Leo McKenzie

Orchestra:  Claudia Tarrant-Matthews (leader), Vivian Stephens, Emma Colligan, Sofia Tarrant-Matthews (violins),  David Pucher (viola), Brenton Veitch (‘cello), Jessica Reese (double-bass),  Tjaša Dykes (flute/piccolo), Merran Cooke (oboe/cor anglais), Mark Cookson (clarinet), Leni Hoischen (bassoon), Shadley van Wyk (horn), Bruce Roberts (trumpet), Madeleine Crump (harp), Natoko Segawa (timpani/percussion)

Conductor: Matthew Ross
Director: Alex Galvin
Producers: Emma Beale and Minto Fung
Designer: Jennifer Eccles
Costumes: Sally Gray
Lighting: Haami Hawkins
Repetiteur: Bruce Greenfield

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Friday 16th November 2018

Eternity Opera’s presentation at Wellington‘s Hannah Playhouse of one of the most famous of all grand operas, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, used a reduced orchestral accompaniment, a “rhyming” English translation of the Italian, and cut one of the more colourful episodes in the work’s Second Act, albeit involving the brief appearance of a “lesser”character. And yet, despite these diminutions of the original, the piece worked its usual theatrical and musical magic, thanks to a production which incorporated the visceral energies and sharply-etched focus of the orchestral playing under conductor Matthew Ross’s clear-headed direction, and the direct, openhearted involvement of all the singers, principals and chorus. Director Alex Galvin’s clear and unobtrusive shaping of both detail and completed picture ensured that the singers gave us the essentials of the piece and consistently and powerfully brought their characters to life, musically and theatrically.

From the outset we got incisive, involving playing from the musicians, conveying these essences as much through sheer will and imaginative purpose in the absence of the usual “weight of numbers” which give the piece such power at the climaxes. In fact I can’t recall a moment during the performance when I found myself longing for the thrill of a full Puccini orchestra doing its “thing”, so involving was the presentation of the fabric of sounds in its more intimate context here.

When it came to the arrival of the characters on stage I was struck by the vivid quality of each of the voices, the opening exchanges between Goro, the Marriage-broker, and Pinkerton, the U.S.naval officer putting across their phrases easily and distinctly. Boyd Owen’s Pinkerton had instant surface-engaging “well-met, fellow” quality of utterance, while Declan Cudd’s Goro was as much “real-estate agent” in his characterisation as anything else (reflecting the production’s 1950s setting), his tones having the suavity one associates with that profession, but less of the spiky, Goro-like busy-bodyness we usually enjoy from the character. Laura Loach as Suzuki, Butterfly’s handmaid, vocalised beautifully at the outset, nicely mingling the character’s awkwardness and deference with a singer’s clarity and warmly-expressed tones.

It took me a while to register that the English translation was a ”rhyming”one, so readily did the words seem to flow without any overtly self-concious “striving for effect” that renderings in English of opera libretti often have – the discourse between Pinkerton and his friend Sharpless, the American Consul (played and sung sensitively and sonorously by Kieran Rayner), flowed easily and naturally throughout, and led up to Pinkerton’s jingoistic “America forever” declaration with irresistible exuberance. Both Owen and Rayner differentiated their characterisations with many a telling remark, response and gesture, even if the “full-on” aspects of their singing tended to emphasise at cardinal points the somewhat “cheek-by-jowl” nature of our listening-space!

This lack of spaciousness in the acoustic made for a slighty different problem in regard to off-stage voices“, notably the entry of Butterfly’s retinue (“heard from the path outside”, says the direction in my libretto) which to me sounded much too close at their first entry, reflecting the lack of backstage space – though I thought using the stairs leading up from the lower level in the foyer might have done the trick, instead….we lost that initial sense of fragility in Butterfly’s character, having her voice so immediate from the beginning. However, despite such strictures, the scene then unfolded beautifully and touchingly, with the “ordinariness” of Butterfly and her cohorts underlined by the modest 1950s  garb worn by the various relatives, all at that point in history, presumably, trying to be “Western”.

As Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), Hannah Catrin Jones looked and sounded the part, the fragility of the instrumental accompaniment serving to underline her self-effacing quality, though her vocal personality was extremely well-focused throughout. Only when the voice was put under any kind of pressure did I register a vibrato which she soon managed to incorporate for me into her “sound”. I thought her portrayal believable and sympathetic, her rapport with whomever she was on stage warm and wholehearted, and her solo scenes stamped with a touching amalgam of vulnerability and strength that enabled the listener to take on a sense of her life-blood coursing the whole time through her being.

The Bonze’s startling entry (Roger Wilson wondrously menacing of voice and manner, almost Commendatore-like, in fact, as Butterfly’s uncle), come to condemn her for renouncing her “true religion”, effectively tore Cio-Cio-San’s world apart, alienating her from her family and placing her almost completely in the hands of Pinkerton, who, despite the intensity of feeling generated between him and Butterfly during the ensuing “love-scene”, subsequently abandons her. Cio-Cio-San’s isolation was here underscored in a different way, of course, by the excision of that aforementioned Second-Act scene in which she is wooed by Yamadori, a rich Japanese Prince, eager to add her to his coterie of wives, and which offer she rejects, remaining faithful to Pinkerton, despite his callous behaviour.

In a similar fashion to that in Verdi’s “La Traviata”, the opera’s core is found in the exchange between the heroine and a friend or associate of her lover, in this case, Sharpless, the American Consul (Kieran Rayner), who’s sceptical of Pinkerton’s intentions towards Cio-Cio-San from the beginning. The scene of his interaction with Butterfly came almost in the wake of the latter’s magnificently-realised “Un bel di” (sorry, I mean, “One fine day”!), Catrin Jones giving her all in thrilling fashion, with again, the relatively lightweight orchestral support delivering oceans of intensity in support of the singer. One would think that whatever followed would be something of an anti-climax, but Catrin Jones and Rayner exhibited such warmth and flow of feeling towards one another’s characters, that we were soon caught up in the interchanges and “moved on”, more than ready for the next stage of the drama.

This came, of course, with Butterfly’s fear and anxiety at the thought of being abandoned, mingled with the hope that hers and Pinkerton’s child (born and raised in secret) would bring them together again. The sudden arrival of an American warship, denoted by a cannon-shot, sent everything into a state of frenzied suspension, Butterfly commanding Suzuki to strew every flower about the house “as close as stars about the heavens”, and bringing the child to wait with her for Pinkerton’s arrival. I thought Catrin Jones’ interaction with the young Leo McKenzie as Butterfly’s little son simply charming and warmly whole-hearted on both sides, the heroine in the process excitedly and determinedly setting up her “welcome” to her long-absent husband, and preparing to wait for “as long as it takes”.

My one disappointment of the evening was the staging of the beautiful “Humming Chorus” which followed – I thought its enchanting, if bitter-sweet effect underdone by uncharacteristically fulsome stage-lighting. It seemed to me the waiting figures were “transfixed” in a strained and uncomfortable state of rigidity at odds with the music’s organic presentation of  an overnight vigil spent amid a mass of conflicting impulses shaped in the direction of somebody’s long-awaited arrival. In the context of the production’s whole, the sequence was something that for me didn’t knit music and stage together with the same sure-footed focus as the rest did.

Still, the final act was, in a word, terrific! – though at times for us in the audience almost claustrophobically so in that small space! Pinkerton’s arrival, with Sharpless, and with Suzuki as Butterfly’s would-be “protector” created enormous tensions and outpourings of emotion, Boyd Owen’s remorse as Pinkerton pushing against the threshold of pain, albeit expressing HIS anguish rather than any real concern for the hapless Butterfly, leaving Sharpless and Suzuki to do what they could for Butterfly instead – the somewhat thankless part of Pinkerton’s American wife, Kate, who accompanied him to the house, was expressed in dignified and graceful fashion by Jess Segal, her presence adding to the almost palpable psychological torture inflicted on Butterfly as she realised, upon entering the room and encountering her visitor, the truth of her situation.

Again, though wanting in sheer tonal heft, the playing of the orchestra in support of Butterfly’s final scene was properly overwhelming in its capacity for generating tension, helped immeasurably by the singer’s fearlessness in addressing the writing’s full-throated outpourings of unmitigated despair. These were the moments where nothing needed to be held back, and Catrin Jones certainly carried our sensibilities along with her towards the inevitability of that moment when she plunged her character’s life into existence’s oblivion.

Altogether, I thought the production a remarkable demonstration of the power of heartfelt and concentrated focus from limited resources to conjure up whole worlds of feeling and imagination. Very great credit to Eternity Opera and all associated with the production, for making opera’s star shine so very brightly once more at Wellington’s Hannah Playhouse.

(Until 24th November)

 

 

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