Madama Butterfly Review: GoldenPlec

Monday, 1 April, 2019
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Irish National Opera and RTÉ Concert Orchestra at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on 24 March 2019

For its first new production of 2019, Irish National Opera presents Madama Butterfly, a work by that most recognisable of operatic ‘brands’, Giacomo Puccini. This is also the company’s first Puccini opera, though you get the impression that many in the busy Bord Gáis Energy Theatre know exactly what to expect. Top of the bill in the title role and across all the posters is the figure of Irish soprano Celine Byrne. She made her triumphant debut as Mimì in another Puccini opera, La Bohème, on this same stage nine years ago, saving an otherwise problematic touring production with her serene presence and tone. Since then, she’s built an impressive reputation, and expectations are high.

The set (designer Todd Rosenthal) is smoothly-designed, with no gaps or rough edges to distract, as the dark wooden frame of Butterfly’s house occupies and fills the centre. Apart from its sliding walls, however, the only thing Japanese about Ben Barnes’ production are the names we hear sung, and the distant source of some impressionistic moments in Puccini’s score. The locale is still Asian but the visual references look much further south, hinting at 1950s Vietnam, offering an interesting shift of perspective. After all, while the story of Nagasaki tea-girl Cio-Cio San/Butterfly—and her tragic encounter with Western culture—may have its origins in 1890s accounts of the American exploitation of East Asian ports, for Puccini the point of the story was always its human focus. This is what Barnes and the company deliver, with a clear and accessible production that is becoming INO’s hallmark.

The RTÉ Concert Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Redmond, is in excellent form, with crisp playing bringing the score’s rich colours to life. On stage, the singers form a well-matched cast, reflected in balanced ensemble singing, duets and exchanges, so necessary in Puccini. Eamonn Mulhall is almost unrecognisable as the pimp-like Goro, stooped and deftly-drawn, while the Lieutenant Pinkerton of Julian Hubbard sings with edgy expression, almost belying the always-disappointing insincerity of his role. Of the men, the richest singing comes from the fine baritone of Brett Polegato as the US Consul, Sharpless, the noble onlooker—given this production, it’s sorely tempting to view him as a version of Graham Greene’s ‘Quiet American’.

Doreen Curran brings a warmth to the role of Cio-Cio San’s servant, Suzuki, and proves an excellent foil for Celine Byrne, with their expansive duet in the second act a particular highlight. In turn, Byrne sings the title role superbly; her experience in this material shows as she brings an honest simplicity to Butterfly, with singing that is beautiful, clear, and true. Her secure technique allows her an ease with this character, a straightforwardness that translates to heart-breaking effect as the story closes in on her.

Nothing is wasted in Barnes’s economical production, and nothing distracts. This allows small details, even the banality of everyday things, to be richly telling, such as that gentle slam of the fridge door—matched by a percussion beat—as Butterfly reacts to more bad news. After the famous humming chorus, the production shifts dimension with a video-montage of period footage, overlapping with the actions of the returning chorus on stage. The Vietnamese setting of this production shows an awareness of the resonances and afterlife of this work (Miss Saigon, for example…), the location simply a colourful backdrop to a tale of inequality that could be set anywhere.

This clean, richly-coloured (and beautifully-costumed) performance is a triumph. It is a show that is certainly easy on the eye and ear, its theatricality superbly-crafted, but doesn’t shy away from the powerful questions that this opera poses. The opening night audience enthusiastically takes to its feet at the end, and you may well too.

Written by Michael Lee, GoldenPlec, 20th March 2019,