Madame Butterfly at the Lowry, Salford
Tuesday, March 6th

Opera north staged Madame Butterfly at the Lowry Theatre this Tuesday as part of their ‘Fatal Passions’ season. The award-winning company has been performing Madame Butterfly since 2007, and Tuesday’s performance saw the return of Annie Sophie Duprels in the titular role of Cio-Cio-San, Peter Savage as Sharpless, Ann Taylor as Suzuki, and the Opera North debut of Lithuanian tenor Merunas Vitulskis. The two-part opera, sung in the Italian, was directed by Tim Albery. The company brought Puccini’s classic to startling life.

Madame Butterfly is unflinchingly tragic. Cio-Cio-San, the opera’s central figure, is sold for 100 yen to the American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton. She moves to embrace her new life and with it Pinkteron’s Christian faith and, in the process, is abandoned by her family. Though she enters the marriage optimistic about her chances for love for and security with Pinkerton, her misgivings about what happens to butterflies in America (pinned to boards) and the Lieutenant’s reply (that’s how butterflies are kept in place), sums up her new position in life.

The themes of isolation, desperation, and mortality, are timeless. It’s impossible, however, watching Madame Butterfly, not to be reminded that while the world has changed since the opera was written, it hasn’t changed enough. The sexual exploitation of women, children, and women who are still children, as the recent Oxfam scandals in Haiti testify to, continue just as they did in Puccini’s day. Cio-Cio-San, at the time of her wedding, is fifteen years old. It is a perhaps unintended timelessness that haunts this opera.

The second act opens three years after Pinkerton left Cio-Cio-San for America, and is a study in isolation and the desperation of the imagination when it’s pushed almost to madness to avoid confronting the truth . The truth, in Cio-Cio-San’s case, being that she has been abandoned to a life of sorrow and poverty by Pinkerton. Suzuki, her maid, and son, the aptly named Sorrow, are her only company. Suzuki is a mirror to Cio-Cio-San where the reverse image of her hope, in all its desperation, is reflected. Sorrow is groomed to take his place in a family that will never be, while the apartment becomes a shrine to what was. By the time Pinkerton does return with his new American wife, Kate Pinkerton (Katie Bird), the opera is positively heartbreaking.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set design made impressive use of the stage: the sliding screens that first opened Cio-Cio-San’s world to the outside become the walls that hem her in, petals cast in one scene emphasized the cast’s movements in the next, and a lone red lamp haunted the household’s long and futile waiting for the Lieutenant’s return. The entire cast shone in their roles. Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-San, Ann Taylor as Suzuki, and Peter Savidge as Sharpless gave particularly vivid and memorable performances. Conductor Martin Pickard led Opera North’s orchestra through a performance that was itself worth the price of admission. You can tell why Opera North has won its awards. If you get a chance to see the company perform, I wouldn’t hesitate.

by Chad Campbell

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