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Madam Butterfly review at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – ‘wrenching emotional power’

Nearly 40 years after it was premiered at Welsh National Opera, Joachim Herz’s venerable 1978 production of Madam Butterfly still packs a hefty anti-imperialist punch. Puccini subtitled his opera “a Japanese Tragedy”, and honed the score to maximum tear-jerker effect. But it is far from being merely an unhappy romantic tale of American sailor boy jilts geisha girl.

Within the sepia tints of designer Reinhart Zimmerman’s shōji-screened interior, subtly lit by John Waterhouse, the terrible reality for Cio-Cio-San of sex tourism and cultural oppression is plain to see – and hear, as conductor Lawrence Foster pits orientalist inflection against The Star-Spangled Banner in knowing, ironic juxtaposition.

The Yankee superiority of Jonathan Burton’s lyrically-sung Pinkerton appalls, but his casual cruelty breaks the heart; for Cio-Cio-San – sung with restrained poise yet full-bodied passion by Karah Son – is seduced into a delusion of shared love despite being sold into disposable marriage.

David Kempster’s consul, Sharpless, proves a far more humane go-between than the suitably revolting broker, Goro (Simon Crosby Buttle). Yet neither he nor the devoted maid, Suzuki – an increasingly furious Rebecca Afonwy-Jones – can stop the inevitable; “Mrs Pinkerton’s” obsession with Americana only heightens the torment.

If the final, dreadful scene could be more solidly climactic, its power is nonetheless intense: Cio-Cio-San’s suicide – by her father’s already bloodied ritual knife, in front of the son whom Pinkerton returns to buy – is almost unbearable. And yet the story remains echoed in reality today in many forms. That the superb WNO chorus and orchestra have it musically in their bones is stirringly evident.

Verdict
Four decades on, a revival of wrenching emotional and anti-imperialist power

Production Information

Production
Madam Butterfly
Venue
Wales Millennium Centre
City
Cardiff
Starts
February 10, 2017
Ends
February 18 2017, then touring
Press night
February 10, 2017
Librettist
Guiseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Composer
Giacomo Puccini
Director
Joachim Herz (original), Sarah Crisp (revival)
Conductor
Lawrence Foster
Set
Reinhart Zimmerman
Lighting
John Waterhouse
Costume
Eleonore Kleiber
Technical
Christopher Moon-Little (staff director)
Stage manager
Julia Carson Sims
Production manager
Robert Pagett
Cast includes
Karah Son, Jonathan Burton, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, David Kempster, Simon Crosby Buttle, Richard Wiegold, Meriel Andrew, Monika Sawa, Carolyn Jackson, George Newton-Fitzgerald, Martin Lloyd, Jack O’Kelly, Alastair Moore, Sian Meinir, Leo Adams, Haydn Lockwood, David Tilley, Derek Tilley
Producer
Welsh National Opera
Running time
2hrs 45mins