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Mike Tilling
Arts Correspondent
6:18 AM 15th March 2020

Opera Up Close - Madam Butterfly

Karlene Moreno-Hayworth as Madame Butterfly and Jonathan Cooke as Pinkerton. Photo by Nicola Young
Karlene Moreno-Hayworth as Madame Butterfly and Jonathan Cooke as Pinkerton. Photo by Nicola Young
Puccini’s sob-fest currently stands at number seven in Operabase’s top ten of operas performed worldwide. None of those more highly rated would surprise any opera fan. For example, La Traviata remains at number one, where it has been for the last five years.

So, what to make of OperaUpClose’s version?

Rumours had been circulating that, with the new libretto (Poppy Burton-Morgan) and orchestration (Ruth Chan), we could expect a MeToo interpretation for our times.

I was sceptical.

I did not see what could be done to make Pinkerton’s betrayal even more treacherous than it already was. The use of Asian singers in roles such as Cio-Cio-San (Mariam Tamari) and Suzuki (Jane Monari) may have been innovative once, but has no surprise value now – they are an accepted part of the opera scene.

Photo by Nicola Young
Photo by Nicola Young
Apart from Cio-Cio-San’s crimson kimono, colours are muted, even dull, but then she is the living, breathing core of the opera. The set is simple and static: no bridge, no sliding panels, no backdrop of ships in Nagasaki harbour. Success depends entirely on the single, central figure of Butterfly, the stillness at the heart of her performance and her heartbreaking steadfastness.

Tamari may well be the ideal Cio-Cio-San. She looks absolutely right, sings well and has a voice that conveys the pathos of a mother about to lose her child. She engages our sympathies and we suffer with her.

Monari's Suzuki is a competent foil for Butterfly. Their duets were pleasing, occasionally sumptuous, and her portrayal of the faithful servant who foresees the looming disaster, but can do nothing to avert it, was highly affecting.

On the other hand if there was a top ten of the most despised male characters in opera, Pinkerton (Jonathan Cooke) would surely score highly. All he has to do is look good (Butterfly’s infatuation has to be credible), hit some top Cs and disappear over the horizon. He fulfilled the role of unredeemed louse, but escaped the customary good natured booing with the applause at the curtain.

Puccini’s score is magnificent, although One Fine Day was underplayed and we lost most of the Humming Chorus, but combined with an exotic location we have a can’t-miss evening of theatre.

Madam Butterfly - Puccini
Opera up Close
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough