The opera group The Wedding Collective describes Finding Butterfly as a “re-interpretation” of Puccini’s revered Madama Butterfly. Indeed, their version takes the heroine as the core of its plot – but this is a very different opera to Puccini’s. Set inside the old, peeling-painted and somewhat unloved Limehouse Town Hall, Butterfly’s tragedy is played out according to the diary her son discovers in 1948.

© The Wedding Collective
© The Wedding Collective

The past comes to life before her son’s eyes, as he re-imagines Butterfly institutionalized in a hospital in 1925, waiting for her three-years-since departed American husband Pinkerton. When he eventually returns, of course, it is to forsake her; he has since married and has come to collect their son from an orphanage. An extended insight into how they once seemed so in love emphasizes the tragedy of this betrayal – although its accuracy is uncertain, as we only see Butterfly’s memory of events. Pinkerton, played with gusto by Joe Morgan, was perhaps too tender and likeable for a man who selfishly abandons his innocent young bride, but still impressed vocally. Latana Phoung also gave an impressive turn as Butterfly’s maid Suzuki. Most notably, Li Li, who is small of frame but definitely Puccinian of voice, is magnetic as Butterfly, called Midori Uehara here. On this night, she didn’t seem to tire for the whole 90 minutes and created a warm and vulnerable character.

The production does not hold back any emotion. In an extended “wedding night” scene, Pinkerton and Butterfly sing at full pelt to each other as they are wrapped around each other in their bed, wearing just T-shirts and underwear. Even in this scene Nicholas Delvallé as Pinkerton Jr. was a consistent presence in the background (appropriately with back turned to the stage for the wedding night scene), although we did not have any sense that he was the “war hero, boxing champion and all-American hero” as whom the production notes describe him. Returning to the abandoned hospital in 1948 to rediscover his Japanese roots via his now-dead mother (Butterfly), his is a one-dimensional character. But he ably provides the framework within which the real drama is played out, looking on with convincing shock, sorrow and anger as appropriate.

Overall, the production would have been more effective on a larger stage. The singers barely constrained their voices to fit the small space (although the high-ceilinged Limehouse is a larger arena than many “fringe opera” venues, as they are often nicknamed). They were accompanied only by an electric piano, the constraints of which are many – although both the stamina and ability of musical director Andrew Charity at the keyboard were commendable. If that name is familiar, Charity was also the musical director behind OperaUpClose’s award-winning La bohème. Li’s hearty rendition of Butterfly’s aria “Un bel dì vedremo”, arguably one of the most widely loved of all arias, was lessened by only having the electric keyboard to accompany her. The chorus was also lightweight, often failing to sing completely together. They served mostly as wallpaper characters in the hospital, gazing at the stage presence commanded by this Butterfly. On the plus side, whether it was intentional or not, the chorus’ crowding around the stage, looking inward towards the heroine, created an effective sense of claustrophobia.

Musically, Finding Butterfly is a bit of a mongrel. Madama Butterfly it is not, as a lot has been omitted from Puccini’s score and some parts have been “mashed up” or moved around. Then there are bits of dialogue thrown in; the libretto is part English adaptation – co-written by director Steven Tiller and Andrew Charity – and part faithful Italian (with scene summaries but no subtitles). This gives the production a pleasing element of dramatic variety. There are also a few inconsistencies, such as Butterfly being chastised with the name of Puccini’s original tragic heroine, Cio-Cio San. Yet, the effect is of a touching story of love and betrayal, perhaps all the greater for the intimate insight we get into Butterfly and Pinkerton’s love life.

The Wedding Collective claims that Finding Butterfly “will lay bare the controversial ideas and historical experiences of colonialism, identity and belonging” which they see in Madama Butterfly itself. These themes are of course present, but the opera which has been created here is overwhelmingly about Butterfly’s personal tragedy, and it is that which is most memorable. The resonances of the post-war context don’t fully imprint themselves upon the action, and nor does the poignant relationship between powerful American male and vulnerable Japanese female. Its structure may have been radically changed and placed in a different decade, but the tale of the tragic heroine and her arias are where the real magic lies. What surrounds Butterfly in Tiller and Charity’s version is unfortunately rather hit and miss.