Saturday, 12 March 2011

Madame Butterfly @ The Royal Albert Hall


Visually at least.  For this revival of Puccini's opera (performed in English), director David Freeman has placed the set in the round.  In the centre is a wooden structure representing a Japanese building; wooden walkways extend out in all directions and the spaces between are flooded with water, creating elegant rock pools; the subtle lighting changes glimmer beautifully on the shimmering surface, mirrored by paper lanterns and floating candles.  It looked magical and when the water was drained for the second and third acts, it seemed positively barren.

This set had both positive and negative effects.  The production was lifted off the page and felt truly alive and organic - like watching in 3D rather than a 2D theatrical plane.  The downside of this was that often the action was obscured by the set, creating an unnecessary barrier between the audience and the singers.  As a result, it was often the ensemble who stole my attention, scurrying out from around and under the stage.  It lended a naturalistic feel to the production that continued through the costumes and acting, authentically replicating Japanese life.

Unfortunately, though, the set wasn't the only barrier.  Kinoshita (Cio-Cio San) may not be a native English speaker, but her diction was inpenetrable.  This, however, carried through to the rest of the cast, suggesting a potential fault with the hall's acoustics.  Subsequently, the production failed on a fundamental level - the point of opera is to dramatise a narrative through music, but here the libretto was all but forgotten.  As such, it was soley left to the orchestra to bring the emotional weight and whilst Puccini's sumptuous score was played commendably, it did at times overpower the singing. 

Puccini's combination of western art music tinged with oriental pentatonicism was successfully matched by the east-meets-west concept of the production.  It was a sensuory overload - stunning to watch and beautiful to listen to, the audience lavishing in the visuals as the orchestral score washed over them.  The visuals are effectively just gloss to the core narrative, which here tragically took a backseat, but this production was well worth the price of admission.