Whatever Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has going for it, it isn’t suspense – everything that’s going to happen is spelled out the first few pages of the score, as Pinkerton chuckles that the marriage contracts in Japan are as flexible as the property leases, renegotiable on a monthly basis, and toasts the day he gets married “for real” to an American bride. The interest has to lie in the reaction of Cio-Cio San, who as Sharpless notes “really means it” – somewhat implausibly, since it is made clear she is marrying only as the result of a financial arrangement with her family, whereas Pinkerton has at least chosen her – as she comes to realise what the audience has known all along. This, perhaps more than any other mainstream opera, puts the burden of carrying the drama on the shoulders of one character. It also, unfortunately, means that a lacklustre performance makes for a very long evening in the theatre.

Anne-Sophie Duprels and Patricia Orr © Fritz Curzon
Anne-Sophie Duprels and Patricia Orr
© Fritz Curzon

Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh’s wonderful film about Gilbert and Sullivan creating The Mikado, has Jim Broadbent as W.S. Gilbert asking the three little maids from school to walk to the front of the stage “in the Japanese manner”. This patronising stereotype may be forgivable in a Victorian context, but to encounter that sort of thinking today is surprising to say the least. But sure enough, just like The Mikado’s gentlemen of Japan, Anne Sophie Duprels’ Butterfly cycles through postures we have seen “on many a vase and jar, on many a screen and fan” – and if her attitudes are queer and quaint (and you’re wrong if you think they ain’t) the question arises as to why she spends the whole of the first act in them. I can’t gainsay movement director Namiko Gahier-Ogawa’s knowledge of traditional Japanese dance, but to have Butterfly dancing like this all the time is as bizarre as a production of Carmen in which everyone is constantly flamenco dancing, regardless of how authentic the flamenco is. It leaves poor Joseph Wolverton’s Pinkerton a rather baffled spectator at his own wedding night, with nothing to play off in a love scene that shows us Puccini’s debt to Wagner even more than its equivalent in La Bohème.

The other problem is the acoustics. The Holland Park tent is hardly a cavernous space by the standards of opera houses, yet even with conductor Manlio Benzi keeping the orchestra on a tight rein, anything sung less than mezzo-forte never reached us. This forced the singers to push to be heard, which in Duprels’ case produced a squally and unfocused tone, wobble rather than vibrato. Wolverton and David Stephenson also seemed to be pushing harder than their voices would have liked, though the latter conveyed better than any Sharpless I’ve seen his sadness and anger at Pinkerton’s shabby behaviour and its consequences. Among the principals, only Patricia Orr as Suzuki seemed able to project without strain.

Vocally and dramatically, things improved in the second half – Duprels seemed to be more warmed up, finding the centre of her notes more consistently, and was allowed to act at last. But the real surprise was Chloe Hinton as Kate Pinkerton, who sang with such warmth and clarity it was as if you’d suddenly been moved ten rows forward (or the opera transplanted to a more sympathetic auditorium) and I can’t imagine why Holland Park would waste her on this tiny role.

Paul Higgins’ direction spares Ben Bristow/Oliver Garcia (the programme doesn’t make it clear who plays Butterfly’s child Sorrow on which nights) the need to stay on stage during the Humming Chorus, but other than that is pretty much Butterfly-by-the-numbers, his only other unconventional decision being not to have Pinkerton rush back onto the stage at Cio-Cio San’s death. All in all, an uninspired production with a central performance insufficient to hold our attention or sympathy.

**111