REVIEW: Ukrainian National Opera’s Madame Butterfly at the Floral Pavilion

I love Puccini; his operas are so… short.

They’re also stuffed full of costume and drama, unbearable pathos and soaring arias. In short, they’re a gateway opera for novices and people like me who have been known to fall asleep during the overture of more heavyweight works.

The story of Madame Butterfly is, unlike the tortuous and preposterous plots of many an opera, simple and so, so sad. American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton, at large in Japan, is charmed by the beauty and innocence of local teenage geisha Cio-cio-san. Her name comes from the Japanese for butterfly and suggests both beauty and, crucially, fragility.

With despicable cynicism, he marries her, with every intention of divorcing her when it is expedient for him to take an American wife. Local Commissioner, Sharpless, warns Pinkerton of the dangers of toying with someone as young and naïve as Butterfly but he is nevertheless gung-ho.

The Bonze, Butterfly’s Buddhist monk of an uncle, comes to the wedding to object to the girl embracing Pinkerton’s religion, but it is too late.

With national Japanese melodies woven through the work, it is easy to see it as comment on Western civilisation riding roughshod over Oriental cultural and religious sensibilities, plundering the East then returning home with a bag of loot, mindless of the tragic consequences. And they are indeed tragic for Butterfly.

The Ukrainian National Opera’s production at the Floral Pavilion had a shaky start, despite an attractive set complete with Willow Pattern bridge and minka house. The orchestra sounded a bit ropey initially and the costume top-knots worn by the male members of the cast raised a titter, which I’m sure wasn’t the intention.

Moreover, and more importantly as his part dominates Act 1, whichever Pinkerton we had (there are two cast, I think Roman Korentsvit) seemed to lack power in his voice. He was also strikingly too old to play the part. We are told that Butterfly is only 15. Now Juliet was 14 but her Romeo was probably only about 17 himself, whereas last night’s Pinkerton looked to be approaching his 50s. It felt, as my teenagers would put it, “a bit noncey”.

Originally written in two acts, following less than rave reviews at its debut, Puccini rewrote the opera for three acts, and included the divine Humming Chorus. However, this tripartite form poses problems for productions, namely where to break for the interval, and I think the Ukrainian National Opera jumped the wrong way, choosing to stop after what was probably only little over half an hour.

Dramatically this makes sense as Act 1 merely sets the scene, whereas Acts 2 and 3 deal with the consequences and the denouement, but it makes for a bewilderingly short first act and a long slog through to the end in the second half. And with weaker performances to the fore in Act 1, it leaves the audience feeling underwhelmed.

However, Butterfly herself, I’m going to hazard a guess at soprano Olga Perrier from her photo, although it’s hard to tell when they’re in costume, was stand-out sensational. Without question the best act was Act 2, which was dominated by the vocal interplay between the two female leads, Butterfly and her maid Suzuki, the excellent mezzo-soprano Viktoria Zhytkova. It is here too that we get the iconic Un bel di, vedremo, where we feel the full force of the betrayed Butterfly’s desperate delusion.

Saving the best for last is a risky gambit in theatre but here, at least, it left the audience feeling that early expectations had been exceeded.

Ukrainian National Opera – Madama Butterfly was a one-night-only performance at The Floral Pavilion, New Brighton. Further dates are listed below:

  • 2 March 2024 PALACE THEATRE, Leeming St, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire
  • 6 March LYCEUM THEATRE, Heath Street, Crewe
  • 7 March THE BATHS HALL, Doncaster Road, Scunthorpe
  • 8 March THE CAST, Waterdale, Doncaster
  • 11 March TYNE THEATRE AND OPERA HOUSE Westgate Road, Newcastle
  • 17 March FORUM THEATRE, Town Centre, Billingham
  • 19 March NEW THEATRE ROYAL, Clasketgate, Lincoln
  • 22 March CONGRESS THEATRE, Carlisle Rd, Eastbourne
  • 24 March QUEEN’S THEATRE, 100 Boutport Street, Barnstaple
  • 25 March THE HAWTH, Hawth Avenue, Crawley

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