Friday 1 June 2012

Madama Butterfly at Grange Park Opera

Grange Park Opera's 15th season opened last night, 31 May, with Madama Butterfly in a production directed by John Doyle and designed by Mark Bailey. The production was originally performed by the Grange Park Opera Rising Stars at Nevill Holt and on a short tour in 2010, this new, revised and expanded version was its first time at the Grange.

Claire Rutter and Sara Fulgoni in Madama Butterfly, Grange Park Opera 2012
Claire Rutter and Sara Fulgoni, photography Alastair Muir
Doyle is a director whose varied credits include Peter Grimes at the Met, musicals (including Mack and Mabel in the West End), spoken drama and being artistic director of four regional theatres. His production of Madama Butterfly was refreshingly traditional with no particular axe to grind. There was no updating, this was set in period, Doyle and Bailey included nice details such as the way Sharpless (Stephen Gadd) took on and off his hat and gloves. The Naval uniform for Pinkerton (Marco Panuccio) had a pair of, unused but necessary, gloves tucked into the belt. The Japanese characters were also delineated with care, so that there was a clarity not only of who was who, but also how they fitted into the story. The story of Madama Butterfly is one full of resonances, but Doyle gave credit to his audience and allowed them space to make their own connections.

Bailey's set was stylised in a way which fitted into the relatively small space of the Grange Park Opera stage and also gave the piece a Japanese feel, like a piece of Ikebana. The flat playing area sloped up and back into one corner, thus creating a most elegant curve at the back. The backdrop was similarly plain with just a single set of Japanese characters. The house was a simple platform with one single screen. The result was a pleasingly harmonious concept, which proved flexible in playing. For the ensemble scenes in Act 1, the chorus in their Japanese costumes ensured that the stage was filled with colour and movement, at other times the set enabled Doyle and lighting designer Wayne Dowdeswell to concentrate on the principals.

The title role was taken by Claire Rutter, a soprano who has previously sung Norma and Tosca here and sang Lucrezia Borgia in the recent ENO production of Donizetti's opera. Rutter is a soprano whose wide range of roles reflects something of an earlier generation. She has had Aida in her repertoire for some time but is planning Elvira in I Puritani at Grange Park next year along with appearances elsewhere as Aida, Amelia (Un Ballo in Maschera) and Sieglinde (Die Walkure). Such wide range requires a strong, secure technique (which Rutter possesses) and the stamina to be able to sing the heavier roles without endangering those requiring a more coloratura technique. As anyone who heard her as Lucrezia or Norma, it is quite thrilling when a spinto voice such as Rutter's does sing this repertoire.

Casting her as Butterfly goes against modern trends towards having the soprano look and sound as if she really was 16. But the role, though a lyric one, requires strong resources and there are moments towards the end of the opera when  it pays dividends having a soprano of Rutter's resource in the role.
Claire Rutter in Madama Butterfly, Grange Park Opera 2012
Claire Rutter, photography Alastair Muir

Though Rutter neither looked 16 nor looked particularly Japanese (I could not help thinking that the long straight wig which Rutter wore in Act 2 did not really suit her), but she successfully created a fully rounded character, rather naive, very touching but with an element of steel as well. Her opening entrance was creditable, but not quite as lovely in tone as I would have liked; but by the time we came to Un bel di she showed how she could thin her voice down and singing consummately. And her final outpouring at the end of Act 2 was heartbreaking and thrilling.

Rutter's Pinkerton was Marco Panuccio, who sang the Duke in Rigoletto here last year and who recently sang the role of Don Pedro in Chelsea Opera Group's performance of Donizetti's Maria Padilla. Panuccio has a lovely tenor voice, which he uses freely throughout the range, with a nice willingness to sing quietly. His Pinkerton was a rather stiff, upright figure, naive and selfish rather than intentionally nasty. If his stage manner seemed a little stiff, this was in keeping with the character, conveying his uneasiness at being in a strange country amid foreigners. Only at the end does the character really come adrift and express emotion openly.

In the love duet, both Panuccio and Rutter created a gorgeous, full throated lyrical outpouring; rarely have I heard this sung so finely in the theatre. Visually, they were a little static with only careful touches of intimacy rather than the full blown eroticism of some performers, but then with singing like theirs all the emotion was in the music. (You feel that if you were transported back to Sadlers Wells in the 50's or 60;s, with Joan Hammond and Charles Craig then you would have seen the same open-hearted, open throated singing, slightly stately stage manner and cautious eroticism.)

Sara Fulgoni's Suzuki was richly imagined creation, providing fine, but discreet support in Act 1 and then developing in her relationship with Butterfly in Act 2. The two women developed a real rapport which conveyed the drama in quiet intensity. An indifferent account of the role will not necessarily mar Madama Butterfly but a strongly intelligent performance like Fulgoni's allowed us to become intensely involved in the women's tragedy.
Marco Pannucio and Stephen Gadd in Madama Butterfly, Grange Park Opera 2012
Marco Pannucio and Stephen Gadd, photography Alastair Muir

Stephen Gadd's Sharpless was similarly well imagined. Performances of this role can often settle into being bluff and one-dimensional, whereas Gadd gave us a finely sung and non-hackneyed approach. Sharpless gets no real big solo moment, his character is defined by his interactions with the other characters, so an intelligent and believable performance like Gadd's has an element of selflessness about it.

The smaller characters were all well taken. Derek Welton was suitable threatening as the Bonze and alex Duliba looked and sounded suitably emptily impressive as Yamadori.  Marta Fontanls-Simmons looked lovely and made what she could of the small role of Kate Pinkerton. Andrew Rees was an oily Goro, without being as annoying as this character often can be. Bailey had introduced Western touches into Goro's costume, which got more overt as the opera progressed.

The chorus, in fine Japanese style costumes, had their moments though there were also occasional moments of uncertainty between stage and pit; something which will be ironed out during the run. The English Chamber Orchestra were in rather crisp, brisk form. The string playing at the opening was firmly defined and but rather lacking the luxurious sheen on it which I would have liked. As the drama developed we had some fine wind playing and solo moments, but overall the playing though technically adept did lack a bit of  bloom.

Conductor Gianluca Marciano was brisk but flexible. He allowed time and space for the singers, but did not dwell overmuch. This was certainly not a self-indulgent performance. There were moments when I'd wished we could have lingered a bit more, but overall Marciano kept a good balance between expressive rubato and dramatic impetus.

This was probably one of the most finely sung performances of Madama Butterfly that I have heard in a long time, with a strong ensemble cast making the most of singing in a relatively intimate theatre.

See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012

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