An airbrushed show that has Madam Butterfly as a human commodity for whoever has the money to pay

Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre

It must be deeply annoying for a director when the opera gets in the way of a concept. Drat – the libretto. You can fiddle with settings, play around with costumes, even tweak the translation but there are some things that you cannot escape. Well, you would have thought not. Imagine the conversation. “Yes, but it says they are Japanese.” “Ignore that”. “But the libretto says he is a naval officer.” ” Oh, ignore that too”. “But the opera is about how a sailor from a Western military power that has intimidated Japan, whose people allow women to be traded as commodities to get their hands on money, into submission discards an innocent girl and returns to his superior Western culture.” “Now you are being difficult.”

Hey ho. Off we go. Airbrush out anything that isn’t convenient with the concept of women being exploited by men (but keep in the anti-American trope as that is on message) and Madam Butterfly may as well be presented as a concert performance. In fact, come to think of it, that would have been preferable.

Having swigged the booze and popped the pills in her IKEA box of a house before blowing her brains out in the shower, this Madam Butterfly seemed to have realised too late that she should have heeded the advice of  the decent men in the opera. Having turned her back on her own people and realising her son would be better off with the stable, sensible American woman and his father, she has no future.

By ignoring the Japanese setting, thus avoiding the ire of the woke brigade, and reducing nearly all the characters to being indistinguishable, director Lindy Hume’s take on the work lost any sense of imperialism, military hegemony, cultural appropriation (in both directions) and racism on the altar of sexism, although even this could be flexible. While it would be tricky to work out how to deal with the vocal requirements, making Butterfly a male bought by another male as we are told this is no particular country or period would have made as much sense. Yes, the message was that all people will do anything for money, even sell their relatives, to whoever has the cash, in this case a woman to a man.  

Mark Stone and Joyce El-Khoury

The exception was the consul Sharpless, decency struggling against the filth of Pinkerton and Butterfly’s family and compatriots. Mark Stone sung the role with conviction and a warm, pleasing secure baritone. The female counterpart was Anna Harvey’s sympathetic Suzuki, the grounded counter to the fatally self-deluded Butterfly.

Most of the characters are indistinguishable ciphers, except the geishas in 1980s sci-fi costumes with Marge Simpson beehive wigs as they robot-like walk around.  Pinkerton, stripped of being a naval officer roaming the seas, comes across as some nasty travelling salesman.  The “Japanese”, whether Butterfly’s family, officials, or pimps, are all revolting, after the main chance.  Prince Yamadori, however, comes across as trying to rescue Butterfly from herself while the Bonze’s warning that by being an apostate will come to a sticky end seems like darned good advice.

Her father having been forced to kill himself, psychologically damaged Butterfly’s mistake is to fall in love with her handsome new husband but by the less fanciful second half of the opera, after three years of ignoring reality she is reduced to being a depressed, single mom who, with only her long suffering servant to chide, it would seem realises that all the men who advised her to wake up and smell the coffee were right. Despite whatever the director wanted to say it remains that having turned her back on her family, her religion, her people, for a man everyone warned her would never return – and finally even losing her son – she has lost everything.

Ah well. Fortunately, the singing and conducting by Carlo Rizza was ravishing. With “Un bel di vedremo” I swooned in the gorgeous singing of Joyce El-Khoury, a soprano as comfortable in the role’s powerful dramatic demands yet with a translucent upper register, rising above the silliness of her costumes, think flamenco meets flamingo, to remind us why this opera transcends whatever trendy trope is thrown at it. Leonardo Caimi at first seemed lost in the cavernous WMC, with so many empty seats,  but he grew to act and sing a marvellously unpleasant fellow but delightful with Puccini’s beautiful music.  The cast was completed with a suitable creepy Goro from Tom Randle, Keel Watson as a strong-voice Bonze, Neil Balfour as a very likeable Yamadori, and Sian Meinir as the American wife Kate.

By the way, is there much point WMC advising people to wear masks during the performance when the First Minister Mark Drakeford watched the first night without a mask? I wore mine as there was no social distancing and I was surrounded by others not wearing masks.

Wales Millennium Centre 26, 28 September and touring.

Images Richard Hubert Smith

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