Simon Hale is impressed by the Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome.
Butterflies flutter and ocean waters ripple in an animated projection against the two floors of a light box-like revolving hotel turned home on an empty set.
Girls in doll-like white lace petticoats with red streaks wait to entertain well-dressed carefree foreign men seeking some illicit under-age pleasure.
This is how director Lindy Hume presents her “dystopic near-future version of our own society” in Welsh National Opera’s thrilling new touring production of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, which landed at Birmingham Hippodrome this week. The parallels with current highly publicised allegations of sex-trafficking, where power, wealth and privilege can buy anything or anyone, are unmistakeable.
Puccini set his opera in 19th century Japan when the country was still opening to Western culture and values – inviting Orientalist stereotypes. Despite a few Japanese references, Hume overcomes this by putting all the focus on an exploited 15-year-old geisha whose life is wrecked by forces beyond her control.
Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), played by Joyce El-Khoury, becomes traded to a US naval officer Pinkerton, who regards a wedding to her as nothing more than another purchase on his credit card. But for Butterfly, the marriage is for life even if that means waiting years for her husband to fulfil his promise to return.
There are a host of supporting characters, all with fine voices, including a wonderful Suzuki (Anna Harvey) who comes over more as sisterly support than maidservant and probably the one person who really loves Butterfly.
There are also notable performances from Mark Stone, the American Consul Sharpless, whose frustration at his powerlessness at influencing events so distressingly evident, and from Leonardo Caimi as a suitable sleazy Pinkerton.
But this production is all about Butterfly: her happiness and hopes, and her delusion and despair. El-Khoury’s emotionally powerful performance, particularly her rendition of Un Bel Di (One Fine Day) and her night-long wait for Pinkerton after finally spotting his ship – an almost dreamlike scene with brilliant lighting from Elanor Higgins – provides plenty of tear-jerking moments.
El-Khoury’s magnificent singing never flags in such a demanding role and one in which she is making her debut. Supporting her is a dynamic and perfectly phrased interpretation of the melodic Butterfly score by conductor Carlo Rizzi, who achieves a superb response from the excellent WNO Orchestra.
Welsh National Opera’s production of Madam Butterfly returns to Birmingham Hippodrome on April 23rd next year. The Spring season in Birmingham also includes performances of Jenufa and Don Giovanni. It’s worth booking now on 0844 338 5000 (birminghamhippodrome.com).
Cover pic – Richard Hubert-Smith.