The new Iford Arts and Bruno Ravella-directed Madame Butterfly completes the hat-trick of simply breathtaking opera at Iford Manor this season – their own Japanese garden having long prompted the suggestion of a new, uniquely romantic production. A hidden-away feature of the grade listed Harold Peto garden which opera-goers have the pleasure of exploring before the performance and during the interval, Puccini’s masterpiece has surely never been staged in more evocative surroundings.
That said, when a work is a popular as Madame Butterfly, the stakes are inevitably high – hence why so few opera directors want to take it on. With countless acclaimed productions such as the late Anthony Minghella’s award-winning version for English National Opera with puppetry by Blind Summit, and the often revived in-the-round David Freeman production at the Royal Albert Hall featuring a Japanese water garden, not to mention so many famous recordings by the likes of Maria Callas, opera-goers understandably have their own cherished memories which any new director is challenged with having to live up to, let alone surpass.
Chinese soprano, Royal Academy of Music-trained He Wu is a revelation as Butterfly, the fifteen-year-old Geisha taken in marriage, and ultimately abandoned, by the self-serving US naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton (tenor Anthony Flaum who shone at Iford Arts last year as Rodolfo in La bohème) who seeks no more than pleasure on visiting Nagasaki. Despite Wu’s slight figure and relative inexperience in such a demanding leading role, her voice is unforgettably powerful, with a soaring range which succeeded in stirring every soul in the full house.
Unlike some sopranos long past their prime and not remotely believable in such a youthful guise, we have the pleasure of seeing the Madame Butterfly début of a star destined to return to this role again and again. From the duet she sings with Flaum, ‘Viene la sera’ (Night is falling) in the first act, to the most famous aria ‘Un Bel Di’ (One Fine Day), we flutter and ache in equal measure as we follow the tale of lost innocence that captured the public’s imagination ever since it was first premiered in 1904 – nor is the theme of a brazen American culture of greed and selfishness lost on today’s audience.
Following on from Ravella’s five star Falstaff at Garsington Opera this year, this is another example of inspired direction, possessing a subtle beauty often missing in the more ostentatious opera house productions I’ve seen previously. Coupled with quite remarkable acting and vocal performances by Flaum and Wu we live through Butterfly’s excitement on becoming an American wife and her passionate, optimistic longing when Pinkerton vanishes for three years, right through to her devastation on realising that he is not returning and has married another (mezzo-soprano Hanna-Liisa Kirchin) with whom he suggests raising the boy he and Butterfly conceived prior to his departure.
Flavio Graff’s simple yet effective design, featuring a Japanese garden and central open-sided wooden structure makes full use of the intimacy of the cloisters, a surprisingly adaptable venue in which the action is uniquely close to the audience, who, seated on three out of four sides of the ‘stage’, peep through the cloister pillars for a truly voyeuristic experience enhancing their investment and empathy in the unfolding tragedy. The Chroma orchestra are positioned to the north of the stage, with Thomas Blunt (former Chorus Master at Glyndebourne) conducting every Puccini nuance with aplomb. Wu and Flaum are equally well supported by baritone and Iford regular Philip Smith (a fine Figaro in last year’s Barber of Seville) as Pinkerton’s comrade Sharpless, and Sandra Porter as Butterfly’s loyal servant Suzuki, while the ‘Humming Chorus’ is another highlight of the rich, harmonious sound created by a strong, well balanced cast.
The uncontrollable tears I witnessed from several members of the audience in the heart-wrenching final act did not surprise me, for this Madame Butterfly is a joyfully emotional finale to the last ever opera production to be staged at Iford Manor and more importantly, a good indication of what can be expected from the new chapter of Iford Arts. These productions might be small, but one should never underestimate the impact they deliver.
The new Iford Arts production of Madame Butterfly at Iford Manor, Bradford-on-Avon, until 4 August 2018. Sung in English. All days are sold out, however, for more information and to be put on the waiting list please visit the website. Production images by MITZI DE MARGARY PHOTOGRAPHY.