Theatre Review: Madam Butterfly by the Welsh National Opera

WNO production of Madam Butterfly. Photo by Jeni Clegg.
WNO production of Madam Butterfly. Photo by Jeni Clegg.

Listening to a story told in a foreign language, while having to read surtitles, is perhaps one thing that puts many people off opera.

But the sign of a really good opera is a story fascinating enough to entice audiences to the theatre, and music beautiful enough to make them glad they did.

There are many examples of bad opera of grandiose style which simply create distance between audiences and the characters on stage, but Puccini’s Madam Butterfly is not one of them.

And last night I was lucky enough to see the great Madam Butterfly performed at Milton Keynes Theatre by a stunning cast made up of members of the Welsh National Opera.

The story, which is told so effectively by Puccini’s expressive score, is achingly sad. Lieutenant Pinkerton of the United States Navy takes out a long lease on a house near Nagasaki and marries Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), a 15-year-old geisha girl.

Cio-Cio-San can hardly believe her luck and commits every inch of her life to her darling husband, even rejecting her religion and family in favour of creating an “American household.”

But when Lieutenant Pinkerton leaves for a while, promising to return when the robins build their nests, she is left alone with her devoted servant Suzuki and soon after bears a child.

Year after year she waits, looking out for every ship to arrive and never losing hope her husband will return. Little does she know that her husband has long considered himself divorced, under the Japanese marriage law which stated that even quite a short abandonment by a spouse could constitute a legal separation.

Tragedy follows as Cio-Cio-San gradually learns the truth.

In this production, the teenage Butterfly is played by opera veteran Cheryl Barker. Although Cheryl is very much older than the character she is playing, a fact which was jarring to me at first, her experience, outstanding vocal abilities and on-stage charisma more than compensated.

I have seen performances of Madam Butterfly by other companies in which the central character was so badly played I could even understand why her husband left her. But Cheryl’s performance of Cio-Cio-San made me warm to the character, empathise with her plight and feel myself hopefully waiting along with her, even though I already knew there was only more sadness in store.

As expected, the highlight was Cheryl’s performance of the One Day aria, which has long held a place as one of the most famous songs to emerge from the operatic stage.

Accompanied by the wonderfully talented Welsh National Orchestra, the cast also included great performances by Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton and Claire Bradshaw as Suzuki.

A recommended night out to the theatre for fans of really good opera. Madam Butterfly will also be performed at Milton Keynes Theatre on Saturday at 7.15pm. Log on to www.atgtickets/miltonkeynes.