Pros: You cannot help but be drawn into this slightly adapted version of a classic storyline by the stunningly visceral performances which showcase some very powerful talent.
Cons: The opera was performed in a combination of English and Italian, which was a little jarring (although the performances were so emotive that understanding the words was unimportant).
I didn’t know anything about Madame Butterfly walking into this ‘reimagining’ of Puccini’s classic opera. It is a tragic romance, a tale of innocent, genuine hope, never lost and dashed at the last minute. Set in Nagasaki, Japan, the young American naval officer Benjamin Pinkerton and a teenage geisha named Cio Cio (Butterfly) fall in love and marry. So in love in fact that Butterfly forsakes her own religion for Christianity and is cursed by her family. Fast forward three years and Pinkerton has returned to America, leaving Butterfly behind in ardent belief of his return, despite cynicism from her servant. However, when he learns that he has a son by Butterfly he returns to Nagasaki with his new wife to retrieve the boy to give him a better life in America. Unable to face Butterfly, she never does see Pinkerton again but hands her son over to the new woman in exchange for one last goodbye with him.
Finding Butterfly picks up where Madame Butterfly left off, and is set in a hospital where Cio Cio (played by an extraordinary Can Xie) has been institutionalised. We first meet her son, one Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, Jr. (a mostly silent but committed Nicholas Delvallé), an American war hero, who, after his adopted mother’s death, has returned to Nagasaki as a twenty-six year old man to learn about his past and his birth mother. He comes to the hospital of her institutionalisation where he is left in a room with a box of her belongings only for the ghosts of Butterfly’s past, including Butterfly herself, to appear to him in a vision recounting his mother’s bitter-sweet tale.
Limehouse Town Hall, a massive shell of a building steeped in history and containing that empty and slightly haunted sense of an unfrequented venue, provides the perfect atmosphere for this reimagined storyline. It is complemented by a minimalist set of hospital beds and wheelchairs, and an ensemble of patients, a motley crew of characters who provide just enough colour to what otherwise is a very small cast without obstructing the focus of the storyline.
I usually find the ostentation of opera too much of a barrier to fully connect with the story and characters in the same way as I might do with straight theatre. However, the life and relationships of these characters were so touchingly, passionately and genuinely portrayed through incredible voice and full-bodied, convincing characterisation, that you could not help but be pulled into this world, swallowed by Butterfly’s hope to be reunited with her love and devastated by her fate.
My only criticism of this production would be the use of both English and Italian opera. I did not think I would be such a stickler for how opera is sung, but I do like having a verbal and not just pantomimed understanding of what is happening on stage. However, the emotion of the voice and the commitment to the characters was so profound that I sometimes found understanding the meaning of the words got in the way as I became swept up by power in the emotion of the music, the singing and the characters.
Overall therefore, this is a hidden gem that should be seen for both its inventive staging and its talented performers.
Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Director: Steve Tiller
Musical Director: Andrew Charity
Box Office: 020 7478 0100
Booking Link: http://www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/finding-butterfly/
Booking Until: 20th October 2012