Some of the most beloved operas come freighted with the heaviest cultural baggage. Consider Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s 1904 opera. Set in Nagasaki, it is steeped in the prejudices of its time, despite its composer’s use of Japanese melody in his score and his clear sympathy for its ill-fated heroine.
The artistic team behind OperaUpClose’s Madam Butterfly challenge the stereotypes of the opera in its new English-language production, but with mixed results.
The setting is shifted to 1980s Nagasaki (which allows for much playfulness in the costumes by Cindy Lin), away from the turn-of-the-century Japan being ‘opened up’ by the West. In this production, Asian performers take the Japanese roles – but with so many excellent Asian opera singers around the world today, this really should not be unusual.
However, this Butterfly does not fly as high as hoped. There are fine performances from the secondary leads: Jane Monari stands out as the anguished Suzuki, loyal to the end to the deluded Cio Cio San. Jan Capinski is fine as the compassionate bureaucrat Sharpless and Jonathan Cooke steals more than one scene as Pinkerton’s open-shirted, gold-necklace-wearing pal, Gordon.
The two leads offer a game of two halves. As Cio Cio San, Mariam Tamari offers a compelling dramatic performance, while Thomas Kinch as Pinkerton shows more confidence vocally.
The performers make the most of Cindy Lin’s clever and versatile two-level set and the new English libretto, by director Poppy Burton-Morgan, is forceful. It’s just a shame that Ruth Chan’s reorchestration for four musicians isn’t fully satisfying.