Madama Butterfly – ‘If you cannot live with honour, you must die with honour.’

Posted: June 2, 2009 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews
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Director: Christine Crouse

Review: Astrid Stark


Once upon a time in a far away land there lived a beautiful geisha, who fell in love with a dashing American Lieutenant, with whom she had a son named Sorrow.  Her story takes place in Nagasaki during the early 1900’s, a time when marriage between geishas and Americans were common, but not respected by the Americans.  The geisha called Coi-Coi-San, or Butterfly, gave up her religion and culture and were denounced for this by her own people, only to be abandoned by her one true love. And so the tragedy of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly unfolds. 

Designer Michael Mitchell uses the highly stylised form of Japanese Kabuki throughout his stage and costume design, with some modern twists, to great effect.  As Puccini’s emotional score takes us from drama to drama the changing stage design has the effect of paging through a stylised graphic novel created from Japanese woodprints.  The flat and solid planes in the background contrast severely with the detailed relief cuttings of cherry blossom trees and again with three dimensional characters in complex Kabuki costumes.   The effect is surreal, breathtaking and thoroughly engaging.  Kabuki involves the use of stage managers, dressed in black, that assist the characters in dressing on stage and moving about.    There is a dramatic scene in which the poor Butterfly is denounced by her uncle for abandoning her religion.  As he vents his anger at her, his entire costume grows large and threatening.

In opera there’s seldom room for compromise.  The story of Madama Butterfly is overly simplified and melodramatic; dipping from one extreme emotion to the next, within a kimono clad heartbeat.  Butterfly waits for her beloved Pinkerton, she cries out, “I thought that I was going to die, but it soon passes like clouds over the ocean.” It is precisely this pared down approach to human emotions that makes the melodrama so riveting. It’s a, ‘love me or I shall simply die,’ approach to life, that hits unapologetically straight into the heart of the romantic fool.

In his composition of Madama Butterfly, Puccini unleashes the orchestra’s full emotional and powerful scale onto the helpless audience.  There is a particular scene where Butterfly and her loyal companion Suzuki hear the harbour cannon signalling the arrival of a ship.  Cherry blossoms, rose petals and paper butterflies rain down onto the stage as the two women decorate the house for Pinkerton’s arrival;  creating the most perfect illusion of shaking up a snow globe and looking in on a miniaturised scene.  As the two women sing and dance in high expectation, we weep, as we know the dastardly Pinkerton is betrothed to another, and suicide is Butterfly’s only option.  Butterfly finally commits hara-kiri using a dagger with an inscription that reads, ‘if you cannot live with honour, you must die with honour’.

The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, under direction of conductor Francesc Bonnin, is simply superb.  There was a moment during the very first opening scenes that the voices and music did not carry well, however this appeared to be more of a sound problem, and it was soon rectified. 

The main roles of Butterfly and Pinkerton are performed by Durban born Amanda Echalaz, and Pretoria’s Stéfan Louw respectively.  Again, the opening was slightly unsure, as if they were still testing the waters.  Soon enough their voices rose passionately and powerfully like waves rushing towards the rocks; tragedy inevitable.  Stéfan Louw appears a bit too beefy to be completely believable as the handsome philandering Lieutenant that stole the gorgeous Butterfly’s heart.    Similarly, Amanda Echalaz’s Butterfly lacks that delicate and graceful geisha movement and style that, of course, takes years of dedication to cultivate. Her voice however is superb.   

Phandulwasi Maseti as the marriage broker and Ntobeko Rwanqa as the American consul perform well in their respective roles.  Violina Anguelov and Janelle Visagie alternates as Butterfly’s constant and loving companion, Suzuki.

Director Christine Crouse saw her first opera when she was five.  It was Madama Butterfly and it starred her own mother.  Crouse now finally has her opportunity to direct Puccini’s masterpiece and the audience’s standing ovation speaks for itself.

It is an evening of total escapism that will fill up your senses and allow you to dream of a time when love really was all that mattered, and death; a question of honour.   Be sure to wear run-proof make-up and bring your hanky.

Performances run 27, 29 and 31 May, and 3 and 5 June at the Artscape Opera House.

 Photo by Stuart Ralph.

Photo by Stuart Ralph.


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