Before the talented cast takes centre stage, or the first stirrings of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are even heard, Madam Butterfly is already a visual masterpiece. Staged in the round, the set consists of Madam Butterfly’s little house – a see-through construction of wooden beams – as the focal point of the set, surrounded by a Japanese water garden. The effect is mesmerising, and transforms even simple changes in light, from flower-filled daytimes to moonlit nights, into breathtakingly beautiful living tableaux.
As the tale, and its subsequent tragedy, unfolds, fog mists above the water, and bobbing paper lanterns are carried in to create a fairytale-like scene. In the second act, the water is drained and replaced with a barren Buddhist stone garden to reflect the less-than-joyous happenings on stage. Like a moving painting, each change is as enthralling as the next, creating a breathing work of art which, thanks to the talents of designer David Roger and director David Freeman, is worth seeing in its own right.
The opera’s story of an American officer and his young Japanese bride is well-known. The lead role of Cio Cio (Butterfly) is shared between Nam-Young Kim, Hyeseoung Kwon, and Myung-Joo Lee, all accomplished singers whose prior performances include La Boheme and Don Giovanni. On opening night, Kwon took the stage, and her soaring rendition of One Fine Day, Butterfly’s much-lauded solo expressing her resolute belief that Pinkerton has not abandoned her and will return “in the spring”, was met with spontaneous applause.
While the structure of Butterfly’s house allows the audience to see events occur both internally and externally, it is the smaller details around the stage that help to create a truly immersive experience. Unobtrusive groups of locals going about their daily routine fringe the edges of the stage, and performers repeatedly entering down stairs that lead through the seats, create the feeling of having entered a bubbled world, rather than merely a performance to watch. This is particularly effective when Butterfly makes her first entrance, Kwon’s stunning vocals floating above the bridal chorus surrounding her as she moves through the audience, allowing the spectators to recognise her by voice first, rather than appearance.
Amanda Holden’s much-acclaimed English translation makes the performance more accessible to those who aren’t seasoned opera-aficionados. Although articulation varies as certain changes lose some of the finer plot details, the feeling injected into each song transcends language – regardless of comprehension. It is impossible to witness the tragic climax of this gorgeously executed opera with dry eyes.
Madam Butterfly is on until March 15, 2015.