This Raymond Gubbay in-the-round production of one of Giacomo Puccini’s best loved operas was first staged at the Royal Albert Hall in 1998 and has been drawing a steady crowd ever since. Currently making a welcome return for a 6th season, director David Freeman reminds us why so many have fallen in love with the tragic tale of Madam Butterfly.
Set in Nagasaki, Japan, at the beginning of the 20th century, this three-act opera tells of a young Geisha bride, Cio-Cio-San, and her doomed love for American naval lieutenant, Pinkerton. Hyeseoung Kwon makes her UK debut as Cio-Cio-San and excels in this emotionally demanding role. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Gwaltney is utterly (and quite rightly) loathable as Pinkerton, who selfishly marries Cio-Cio-San having boasted to his friend Sharpless (David Kempster) of his intentions to look for an American bride on his return home.
This confession casts the audience, in true pantomime style, against Pinkerton once and for all as we observe the traditional Japanese wedding ceremony and his seduction of Cio-Cio-San. Left for three years following her marriage to Pinkerton, she watches the ships docking in the port every day, convinced that he will return to her. When Pinkerton does returns to Madame Butterfly’s house, however, it is with his new American bride, Kate (Lise Christensen), and the emotional heartbreak reaches crescendo point when the couple insist on raising Cio-Cio-San’s son, adament that the child would have a better future in America.
David Roger’s striking design features Madam Butterfly’s house at the centre of the hall, perched on stilts above the surface of a traditional Japanese water garden and surrounded by flowers and floating candles. Without question, it’s one of the most breathtaking sets you will ever see and makes a feature of the Royal Albert Hall’s dimensions, so often a barrier for designers, and allowing cast members to make their way to the stage through the aisles of the stalls.
The intimacy Roger manages to achieve in this enormous venue ensures the audience feels entirely absorbed in the unfolding drama. Although the sound amplification required does muffle the vocal clarity on occasion, sung in English, Amanda Holden’s acclaimed translation helps to overcome any language barrier and Oliver Gooch, conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus, injects a tenderness Puccini always intended – it’s just a shame that the sound designer isn’t doing this otherwise sublime production full justice.
Madam Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall, London, until 15 March 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.