13 February 2018, Municipal Theatre, Napier By Gill Duncan
Maestro José Aparicio effortlessly delivers the beautiful music of composer Giacomo Puccini, and, along with the fabulous voices of the cast, this carries us through Madame Butterfly’s story with its eternal themes of unrealistic and idealistic youth and innocence, made vulnerable through poverty, betrayal and man’s desire.
Full of admiration for Prima Volta I wanted to believe in this production, however, suspending reality challenged me in the beginning.
Opera, with its large full-mouthed ‘O’, is the twelve-course meal of musical theatre. I was expecting the huge voices bellowing out notes big enough to expand caverns, the great vocal timbre of vibrato, a heaving breast even, but it also seemed I needed incredible costuming and achingly romantic sets to support my idea of the full-blooded, four-chambered heart of an operatic production. This was opera in mufti.
Ironically, being the beginning of Art Deco Week, many of the audience would have eclipsed with their lavish attire.
The programme cover features a very young Japanese girl; director John Verryt is quoted within rejecting ‘Japan-easy’ but should have added it to the programme’s brief perhaps, as it underscores an unsettling incongruence between the fine soprano lead – a more mature and comely heroine – as a fifteen-year-old “delicate flower”, before she has had the chance to beguile us with her emotive and masterful delivery. These are superficial quibbles but contributed to my initial unease in the first act.
Grand musical phrasing, in romantic Italian, translated into kitchen prose on the screen above – “Shut the door!” – made me wonder if stark translation does opera a disservice. Rather than being drawn into the glory of the music and my own interpretations of the emotion and drama conveyed, I found myself repeatedly startled out of the scene with prosaicism.
Lastly the clever set was too similar to those of lesser shows. Industrial use of scaffolding, representative and minimalist, did not place or cradle the little house of Cio-Cio San’s tragic love and itself looked like a computer screen minus the (lotus blossom or cherry tree?) screen-saver.
However, these are all illusionary props and accessories; the essential truth of opera is in the excellence of voice and music. And these young stars really did deliver here with support from highly professional staging and movement, lighting effects of lanterns, shadows and sunrise.
Immediately into Act Two, I found I was engaged with real magic taking over onstage. Was I now used to checking the translation and had accepted the imagery? More likely I was simply overcome with Cio-Cio San’s passion and pathos along with the wonderful musical pairing with her maid Suzuki, and the addition of the enchanting child, Sorrow. I was hooked.
The singing was superb, these young talents filled us with flavours faithful to Puccini’s beautiful music – I could not believe the programme lady who told me many of the actors were in their last years of school! Their diction was clear, with clean phrasing and I adored all the male voices, finding Pinkerton, the Consul and Goro particularly convincing. Mention must also be made of the effective on and offstage use of their excellent opera chorus working alongside such musical luminaries as Peni Pati (Sole Mio), Soprano Toni Marie Palmertree and Welsh Baritone Gary Griffiths.
Madame Butterfly is performing tonight (15th), Saturday (17th) and Monday (19th).