Corrupt business practices, religious conflict, the dangerous power of our occupying forces: these are not snippets from recent headlines, but rather major themes from the London City Opera production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The opera played for one evening during last term’s finals week at the Performing Arts Center.
The director, Terry John Bates, emphasized timely elements using several devices. First visible of these was the updated setting to Nagasaki of the 1930s. The costumes, a bicycle and a rocking chair presented more recognizable Western influences.
The opera tells the story of a young Japanese woman, Butterfly, who becomes a Geisha and is contracted to marry an American serviceman, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton.
The guy has no intention of honoring a cheap marriage, even while Butterfly renounces her religion and family to become Western. He abandons her with a child.
Years pass as suitors try to return her to a Japanese life while she refuses, still trusting Pinkerton. His ship arrives, but he has returned with an American wife and only seeks the child.
Butterfly asks him to return later for their child alone. She blindfolds the boy, and kills herself before Pinkerton arrives.
This is opera. The betrayal of her family, central to this production, resembles the precipitating trouble for Euripides’ Medea. Yet Butterfly’s selfless destruction, not of her own child, but herself, proves just as pathetically moving, as it acknowledges an inescapable tie to tradition.
The Butterfly of Melinda Hughes furthered the cultural distance with continual reversal of her betrothed’s name as “F.B. Pinkerton.” Her height only hampered her performance inasmuch as it magnified un-idiomatically unreserved movements and gazes during her Act I entrance.
She more than compensated for these by her adept molding of long lyric phrases with dynamic shifts of astonishing control and beauty.
Sean Ruane’s Pinkerton provided a firm lighter voice that complimented hers in the duets, was well projected, and was disarming in his late remorse.
Except for some sloppy rhythms from the chorus, the other roles were well sung, especially the servant Suzuki of Carol Rowlands, and Craig Smith’s Sharpless.
These traveling companies skillfully adapt to new spaces, and with super titles to break the language barrier, will inevitably attract a larger Lawrentian audience.