Wednesday 4 September 2013

Madama Butterfly - Co-Opera Co at the Hackney Empire

Verunka Vlkova and David Linton-Ford in Madama Butterfly, Co-Opera Co 2013
Co-Opera Co launched their London season at the Hackney Empire with a stylish updating of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Jacopo Spirei's production debuted in July at Bury St. Edmunds, and featured Verunka Vlkova as Cio Cio San, David Woodward as Pinkerton and John Rawnsley as Sharpless with Susanne Holmes, David Menezes, Thomas Asher, Stephen Bowen, Espeth Marrow and David Linton-Ford, conducted by Martin Handley.

With a relatively bare set, just a series of white platforms to suggest the house against a plain backdrop, the production allowed full scope for Paul J Need's imaginative lighting. Working with a predominantly young cast, Spirei had rightly chosen to concentrate on the fascinating interactions between the characters. Co-Opera Co is a company which helps to provide experience and training for singers just starting their careers; training which is doing in collaboration with a number of distinguished senior members of the profession. For this production, the distinguished baritone John Rawnsley joined the cast as Sharpless.

With Rawnsley significantly older than other cast members, and with a Cio Cio San in Verunka Vlkova who looked creditably 16, there was great potential for exploration of differing attitudes and Spirei had clearly found the idea interesting. This was a fascinating and involving production, with the detailed personen regie one of its strongest points. From the very opening, with Rawnsley, David Woodward's blithe and thoughtless Pinkerton and David Menezes' subservient but furious Goro, it was clearly who these people were and how they were interacting. Performing without subtitles we were very dependent on the singers performances to guide us and we were not disappointed.

With the entry of Cio Cio San and her friends, Spirei pulled off something of a coup. Up to this point, costumes had been traditional and timeless (with Rawnsley in a crumpled white suit, Woodward in uniform and Menzes in Japanese dress), but Vlkova was in a white 1950's style new look wedding dress with veil, her mother was similarly in modern dress. As many people have done in the past, Spirei had updated the production to the 1950's and it became apparent, particularly in the second act, that Spirei's conception was very much about Cio Cio San's aspiration as an American bride. At no time did Vlkova wear Japanese dress and in act two, with her blond hair, she was almost a Marilyn Monroe clone.

If the title role in Madama Butterfly does not quite have the requirement for the voice of Isolde in the body of a sixteen year old, as Richard Strauss famously described the title role in Salome, then Cio Cio San does come pretty close. As recent performances by Claire Rutter (at Grange Park Opera) and Anne Sophie Duprels (at Opera Holland Park), the opera needs a soprano with dramatic resources who can both bring off the intense drama of the ending and sound convincingly virginal in act one. Vlkova demonstrated that she has those resources, in a capable and intensely dramatic performance.

If her entry was not quite perfectly pure vocally, she compensated with great intelligence and convincing demeanour. Her Cio Cio San was a very self possessed young lady and with very strong reactions to all around her. Both Un bel di and Piccolo idio were very affecting and finely sung, with the latter showing remarkable vocal resource. There were odd moments where the top of her voice did not seem quite perfectly integrated, but this was a small point when faced with such commanding performance.

Woodward was brilliant at suggesting Pinkerton's youthful enthusiasm and thoughtlessness, in a performance which strongly hinted at the character's casual racism. (In fact I would very much like to see what Spirei might make of the original, darker version of the opera.) Woodward has an attractive lyric tenor which he used with ardent enthusiasm though at times the voice seemed a little tense, and he did not open up as much as I would have liked in the love duet at the end of act one

This duet was a fascinating exercise in the interplay of the two characters. Vlkova's strong Cio Cio San having far more disturbing reaction to the Bonze's interruption and Woodward's Pinkerton at something of a loss, full of erotic enthusiasm but forced to tread carefully. It was a mistake, I think, to bring the bed onto the stage and show the singers in the first grips of passion. Far better to let them concentrate on the music and leave things to our imagination.

There are two important relationships in the opera, that between Cio Cio San and Pinkerton, and that between Cio Cio San and Suzuki. This latter came strongly into focus in act two with Susanne Holmes wonderful, watchful Suzuki. Holmes was good at suggesting Suzuki's constant suspicion, combined with her devotion to Cio Cio San despite the sometimes violent nature of their relationship. The result, at the end, was profoundly touching.

Rawnsley as Sharpless made the most of the age gap and gave a performance of great richness. Initially world weariness was overcome by a clear developing regard for Cio Cio San and a concern for Pinkerton's treatment of her. Rawnsley's voice no longer has its full amplitude, but he used it wisely and intelligently and gave the younger singers a master class in dramatic performance.

David Menezes made a vivid Goro, put upon by the Westerners and in his turn casually vicious to Suzuki. It was a surprisingly rich performance and contributed amply to the general way the drama involved you.

Thomas Asher gave confident performances as Yaadori and Commissioner, whilst Elspeth Marrow was hilarious as Cio Cio San's Western dressed, cigarette smoking mother. Marrow also doubled as Kate Pinkerton, a role heavily truncated in this version of the opera.

Martin Handley conducted the hard working 16-person Co-Opera Co Orchestra. Handely's speed and drive at the opening seemed to be almost too much for the orchestra, but once things settled down there was much to enjoy and they supported the singers admirably.

Co-Opera Co continues at the Hackney Empire for the rest of this week with a further performance of Madama Butterful, plus The Mikado and a gala concert. Further information from the Co-Opera Co website.

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