Butterfly jars: Madame Butterfly at the Kings Head Theatre

Saturday 11th February 2017

We’ve become regular punters at the King’s Head, home of the intimate opera, with recent highlights being a game-show version of Cosi Fan Tutte, and a cleverly updated La Boheme.  We were keen to see their latest interpretation of ‘Madame Butterfly’, an opera we first saw there six years ago, in a strikingly bold version.

We knew we would be in for a treat singing-wise, with an excellent cast including Becca Marriott and Matthew Kimble, who shone in La Boheme as the doomed lovers.

In this case, however, the updating seems to create more questions than answers, rather than making the story more accessible.  Instead of being set at the turn of the previous century, the action is brought right up to date.  ‘Butterfly’, an innocent 15 year old girl, works in a ‘Maid cafe’, a modern phenomenon where the waitresses dress up as French maids, amongst other things, and flirt with the guests.  Pinkerton remains a US naval officer, although he appears in fatigues rather than in the traditional officer’s dress uniform.  By setting the action in a modern day first-world country, the stakes are much lower, and Butterfly’s motivation becomes much harder to understand.  She is obsessed with being married, but this seems strange when she must surely have other options.  The other possible motivation, that she simply falls head over heels in love with Pinkerton, the glamorous naval officer, is also removed, as no attempt is made to give him any redeeming features.  He shows himself to be an immature and selfish slob at every opportunity, downing half a bottle of whiskey just before the wedding ceremony.  His motivations, too, are exposed as rather dubious.  In modern times the need for a sham wedding isn’t there, so what is he really looking for?  It makes uncomfortable viewing (particularly the prolonged and unnecessary undressing scene), whilst falling short of the tragedy of the original.

The ‘Maid cafe’ setting also creates another problem.  Instead of a Japanese woman dressing up as a Western character, we have a caucasian singer playing what appears to be a stereotype of a Japanese Geisha.  It is not clear if this is a performance, but we can’t avoid the realities here – the reversal of roles exposes a gulf of cultural insensitivity.  They might just have got away with it if there had been a clear demarcation between her behaviour in the cafe, and her behaviour back at home, but whilst Butterfly behaves more like a typical modern teenager at home, her companion Suzuki is still wandering around in a kimono with exaggerated Japanese mannerisms and a dark wig (and if we had the space we’d have to announce another entry to the competition for worst stage wig ever, but that’s for another post).  It didn’t help that Amanda Holden’s libretto, whilst well-written in itself, was clearly not written for an updated production, leading to quite a lot of confusion.  The Director and cast seem blissfully unaware that there might be a problem with this portrayal.  We might have some sympathy for a small company unable to find authentically East Asian singers for the roles, although we can’t say how hard they tried, but there is no excuse for the tokenistic cultural references.

Madam Butterfly is a much-loved and performed opera, but seeing this production really opened our eyes to how far we still have to go – the idea that caucasian singers can just ‘yellow up’ for the role is still pretty entrenched, not to mention the cultural stereotypes it embodies.  What a shame that this company, who have made so many innovations in the world of opera, missed the opportunity to bring in authentic performers and create a more sophisticated version of the story.

We wouldn’t want all this to take away from the genuinely moving performances, which if anything showed that a more traditional production might have done just as well.  Becca Marriott, so moving as Mimi in La Boehme, here gives a singing performance brimming with emotional content.  Not many singers or actresses could carry off a segue which involves sitting up all night waiting for their lover, but she does it beautifully.  Matthew Kimble certainly has range, transforming himself from lovable misfit Rodolfo in La Boehme to a particularly arrogant and cowardly version of Pinkerton.  As the consul who has to watch the tragedy unfold, Sam Pantcheff brings some gravitas, and his rich singing voice sets the emotional tone.

Maybe it’s time to use this company’s talents in more imaginative ways.

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