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Ellen Kent's Madama Butterfly

Ellen Kent's Madama Butterfly

Senbla presents Opera International's award-winning Ellen Kent and the Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv production, with international soloists, highly-praised chorus and full orchestra.

Back by overwhelming public demand, this award-winning Opera returns in a new production with exquisite sets including a spectacular Japanese garden and fabulous costumes including antique wedding kimonos from Japan.

One of the world’s most popular operas, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly tells the heart-breaking story of the beautiful young Japanese girl who falls in love with an American naval lieutenant – with dramatic results.

Highlights include the melodic Humming Chorus, the moving aria One Fine Day and the unforgettable Love Duet.

Sung in Italian with English surtitles

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Our review on Ellen Kent's Madama Butterfly

Ellen Kent's Madama Butterfly - Opera House, Manchester - Friday 12th January 2024 by Christa Norton

Our Rating

I love happy endings. Nothing pleases me more watching a production than everything working out in the end. All’s well that ends well. In fact I actively shy away from self indulgent tear jerkers and – when I am watching a tragedy - spend much of my time frustrated and even irritated by whichever fate, or circumstance, or character flaw is being explored. 

 

Yet there are some stories that, for me, can transcend this. Sometimes it is the story itself, others it is the way in which it is told. With opera in particular, I find that the translation of emotion into song somehow makes it feel more honest, more genuine, less selfish.

 

I have never seen a live production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly before, but as a child of the nineties, I grew up with the songs of Miss Saigon, which is based on Madama Butterfly, and which I absolutely adore. So I was incredibly excited to finally see the source material on stage at The Opera House.

 

This production is the third in a series of powerhouse operas presented by Ellen Kent, this evening’s performance preceded by productions of Verdi’s La Traviata and Bizet’s Carmen. I remain slightly in awe of the ambition in presenting these productions on consecutive nights, especially given Ellen Kent’s reputation for creating a sense of the spectacular. The scale of each opera is huge, grandiose even, and whilst there is some similarity thematically, from a production perspective, there is little overlap.

 

Madama Butterfly is set in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1904 – a contemporary setting for Puccini’s audience. It tells the story of Cio-Cio San (her name taken from the Japanese for Butterfly), who falls in love and marries the dashing America officer Pinkerton. The opera opens with their wedding, and whilst it is apparent that Butterfly is truly in love, it is also clear that Pinkerton sees their relationship as somewhat more transactional – especially given her history as a geisha. During the course of their wedding, however, this changes and Pinkerton finds himself more intrigued by and attracted to her – especially when she is shunned by her family. By the end of the first act, they are lovers – leading to tragic consequences.

 

This production from director Ellen Kent takes a very traditional approach to the opera and – as promised - creates a sense of the spectacular from its opening moments. The curtains rises to a stunning stage, which immediately captures the attention of the audience. Flowers are adorned everywhere bringing a glorious range of colour to the set – an abundance of cherry blossom particularly helps to create the Japanese picture. The water garden even has a functioning fountain to add the sound of running water to the soundscape. At the centre is a traditional Japanese house where paper sliding doors are used to brilliant effect to create silhouettes during the more intimate and emotive parts of the opera.

 

The brilliance and colour of the staging is carried through to the costume design, with the Chorus dressed in beautiful Japanese kimonos used to bring more vibrancy to the stage. This has the added advantage of allowing Butterfly to stand out in pure white. As an added piece of stagecraft, the Chorus all hold fans which are in constant use, flitting about much like the wings of butterflies, creating a powerful visual effect.

 

In this production, Butterfly is performed by soprano Elena Dee (Aida, Tosca). She has a wonderful voice, with a sweetness of tone that matches Puccini’s rich score. Her performance of the renowned Un Bel di Vedremo (One fine day we’ll see) is beautiful and received spontaneous applause from the very appreciative audience. Dee has some fun with the role too, especially when she is teasing and ultimately dismissing Prince Yamadori in the second act. For me, the libretto demands this coquettishness – there is a lot of opportunity for humour and banter particularly in the first act. I would definitely have loved to have seen more sassiness from Dee throughout her performance.

 

Opposite Dee, Pinkerton was performed by Giorgio Meladze (Turandot, Aida).  His has a sonorous tenor voice that is very easy to listen to, and which blended well with Dee’s soprano during their duets. I would have liked to have seen more swagger in his performance – he seemed more careless than heartless and I didn’t quite believe him capable of the callous arrogance at the heart of his character.

 

Other strong performances include Iurie Gisca (Marriage of Figaro, La Boheme) as Sharpless. His voice is a sumptuous and velvety baritone, and he succeeds in raising concerns over Pinkerton’s behaviour – and the damage to Butterfly - without seeming judgemental or officious.

 

I also really enjoyed Natalia Matveeva (Carmen, Madama Butterfly) in her performance as Suzuki. The gentle care she has for Butterfly was at times very touching, and their duet ‘Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio’ (also known as The Flower Duet) was deeply moving.

 

The Orchestra of the Ukranian Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kyiv, conducted by Vasyl Vasylenko provides solid support for the singers on stage, with the players clearly enjoying the rich Romantic harmonies and playful counterpoint in Puccini’s challenging score. Vasylenko ensures the orchestra provide a clear sense of momentum and movement throughout whilst still creating space for the singers’ creative interpretation, especially within the main arias. There are many solos from principals in both woodwind and strings, and I would particularly call out the principal cellist, whose solo in the last act was rich, and mellow, and wonderfully mournful. It would have been great to hear more of the delicate interplay between the orchestra and soloists as I felt sometimes this got a little lost.

 

The production was incredibly well received by the audience, who cheered Butterfly and booed Pinkerton as they took their bows, and indeed many gave the performers a well earned standing ovation. It’s certainly a good choice for anyone keen to expand their opera experience – especially teenagers or young adults given the production isn’t particularly explicit.

 

A final note: more poignancy was created at the end of our production when, having finished their bows, the performers hoisted a Ukrainian flag and sang the Ukrainian National Anthem. It served as a stark reminder to all the audience that there are many people today in the real world suffering real tragedies.

Our review on Ellen Kent's Madama Butterfly

Ellen Kent's Madama Butterfly - Opera House, Manchester - Thursday 26th January 2023 by Lizzie Johnston

Our Rating

Madama Butterfly is arguably one of Puccini’s most popular operas, despite this, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about the show (other than its name) before going. I was aware of its popularity but not really the storyline, so read up on a short synopsis to get started. Sometimes going to a show when completely clueless about the context makes it a unique and fun experience, I went having no expectations and was just happy to take in the atmosphere and enjoy a night at the theatre. 

Straight from arriving at the Opera House I knew this was going to be pretty much a full house as the queue formed along the street and there was an excited buzz in the air. Opera lovers of all ages were waiting to take their seats, which goes to show that opera can be for anyone and everyone. 

Madama Butterfly is one of Puccini’s most popular works in his repertoire. It’s a sad story of love, passion and tragedy as we follow young Japanese woman Cio Cio (“Butterfly”) as she loses her heart to the dashing American Naval Officer, Officer Pinkerton, only to discover his love is fleeting. The themes are wrapped up in Puccini’s beloved score and this particular production has been put together by esteemed director Ellen Kent with The Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv.

What I love about theatre is how it transports you to another location and time, it allows you to get lost in a story completely different to your own. As soon as the Opera House curtain lifted, the set did exactly this. We were shifted back in time to turn-of-the-century Japan with a set bright and full of colours to create an Oriental dream garden. The costumes matched the enchanting set with bright colours and traditional dress that stood out alongside the American Naval uniform. 

At its heart, opera isn’t about grand sets or large choruses, it’s about conveying emotion through voice and this, paired with a fantastic orchestra, is what makes opera a unique experience which people have adored for centuries. A major stand out moment was when the company took their bows alongside a Ukrainian flag and sang the national anthem. This elevated the whole performance and every audience member felt this as they rose to give a standing ovation. It was extremely poignant and nevertheless important. 

There’s no denying the talent and power behind the international soloists and highly-praised chorus, led by Korean soprano Elena Dee (Madam Butterfly, Aida, Mimi), Ukrainian soprano Alyona Kistenyova (Carmen, Boheme, Traviata) and Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Natalia Matveevan (Aida, Othello, Madama Butterfly). The whole company came together to portray the themes of loss, tragedy, love and passion in every element of the story. Their voices blended together beautifully to create a harmonised sound that echoed around the auditorium. 

What I enjoyed about Ellen Kent’s direction was the physicality that was added to the production, in particular when we were introduced to the Japanese women at the start. Madama Butterfly had an aura of grace and floated along the stage, in a youthful and elegant style, but so did the rest of the female chorus. They moved as one, taking small steps to move ever so slowly into the centre of the stage. This created a stark contrast to the strong American Officers and helped to set out the themes and characterisation of the story. Not only this, the movement and acting made the story much easier to follow so there was no issue with getting lost in the translations. The show is sung in Italian with English subtitles so it’s simple to understand and this tackles the queries about any language barriers.

This show is certainly for the opera lovers among us, theatre goers who enjoy being immersed in the passions and emotions of the talented company. The production itself is easy to follow along and, if you know the gist of the story, then you can let yourself be immersed in the Japanese paradise and engrossed by the bittersweet emotions that this love story entails.

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