Madama Butterfly, Opera Holland Park

London, in the guise of Opera Holland Park, certainly
repaid the favour on this occasion. Not only, vile weather notwithstanding, did
it aid my already rapid thawing towards Puccini; it offered a production and
performance which, considered as a whole, were probably the finest I have yet
seen at Holland Park.

It was certainly a relief to be spared the vulgarity of a Zeffirelli-like
production. Paul Higgins’s staging and Neil Irish’s designs were not
abstract, but they were (at least by some standards) relatively spare, offering
a space in which the action may unfold rather than overwhelming it. The screens
at the back of the stage both facilitate comings and goings and offer a welcome
impression of Japanese or at least Orientalist stylisation; likewise the
costumes are ‘faithful’ to time and place, without becoming an end in
themselves. The American flag is as noticeable on stage as it is in Puccini’s
score, perhaps a little less, but the effect in both is as much exotic as
straightforwardly anti-imperialist. I cannot help but wish that Puccini had
been a little more restrained in his use both of the ghastly Star Spangled
and those too-obvious pentatonicisms, but at least he, like the
staging, is relatively even-handed. (I suppose we should remind ourselves that
what has become wearily commonplace for us was still very much new musical
territory not so long after the celebrated Paris exhibitions.) Higgins also
reminds us and holds in our mind that Cio-Cio-San is a dancer, Namiko
Gahier-Ogawa’s movement working well in context. Nothing peripheral, however,
is permitted to obscure the central tragedy: a signal achievement from which
many directors could learn.

That also depends, of course, on a convincing assumption of the title role.
Anne Sophie Duprels offered something rather more than merely convincing; she
inhabited the role completely, offering a rounded portrayal in dramatic and
vocal terms alike. Not a single false note, in any sense, was struck, and one
sympathised to a degree beyond the expectations engendered by what can often
seem a silly role. Butterfly’s delusion, then, convinced at least as much as
her attraction. There was strength without steel, nobility without
hauteur. Joseph Wolverton’s Pinkerton occasionally sounded a little
too Italianate in the pejorative sense, and proved somewhat lacking in stage
presence; still, with the American flag on his side, perhaps he did not need
them. Chloe Hinton offered hints of something far more in the role of his wife,
but given the nature of that role, they could be little more than that.
Patricia Orr, however, impressed greatly as a wise Suzuki, beautiful and
graceful of voice and movement. David Stephenson’s Sharpless likewise made
much, though never too much, of words and music. The suitors’ and other
smaller roles were all well taken.

The chorus sang and acted creditably throughout, clearly well trained. I was
surprised by how little I missed the sound of a larger orchestra, the losses
proving largely cosmetic rather than fundamental. Indeed, one heard in the City
of London Sinfonia’s performance (strings a great deal more of the
inner workings — more than once I found myself recalling aspects of Die
— than one might in a larger-scaled, conventional account.
(That is not to claim that I think chamber orchestras should become the norm,
but simply to note that, given a high enough level of performance, virtue can
arise from necessity.) Manlio Benzi shrewdly marshalled his forces, imparting
dramatic tension throughout and steering as clear as might reasonably have been
expected from sentimentality.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Butterfly: Anne Sophie Duprels; Pinkerton: Joseph Wolverton; Suzuki:
Patricia Orr; Sharpless: David Stephenson; Goro: Robert Burt; Kate Pinkerton:
Chloe Hinton; Bonze: Barnaby Rea; Prince Yamadori: John Lofthouse; The Imperial
Commissioner: Alistair Sutherland; Butterfly’s Mother: Lindsay Bramley; The
Aunt: Loretta Hopkins; The Cousin: Maud Millar; Yakuside: Nathan Morrison;
Sorrow: Ben Bristow. Director: Paul Higgins; Designer: Neil Irish; Lighting:
Richard Howell; Movement: Namiko Gahier-Ogawa. Opera Holland Park Chorus
(chorus master: Holly Mathieson); City of London Sinfonia/ Manlio Benzi
(conductor). Holland Park, London, Wednesday 12 June 2013.

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