Theatre Review: Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House


On the 31st of March I ventured out to Bluewater’s Showcase Cinema to see a live showing of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House. I was drawn to this opera as I am an avid fan of Miss Saigon, a mega-musical based on Madama Butterfly itself. I had always found Miss Saigon heart-wrenchingly beautiful and was interested in seeing if Madama Butterfly would make me feel the same. Being new to opera, and having found mixed experiences when viewing it, I was uncertain on whether I would enjoy the performance. I feared that I would end up falling asleep after being bored silly. However, there was no need for me to feel uncertain as it was a phenomenal performance, and an opera that will remain as a favourite from now on.

*Just as a disclaimer, I do go into detail about the plot of Madama Butterfly, so if you are unaware of what happens and would rather not be spoilt then perhaps skip the rest of this post. Maybe go see the opera yourself first!*

Madama Butterfly first opened in 1904 and is a Japanese Tragedy that tells the story of Cio-Cio-San or “Butterfly”, a geisha who throws away her own culture and religion to marry an American soldier. When her husband Pinkerton leaves for home, she believes that he will come back, even after 3 years have gone by and everyone else tells her to move on and marry again. It is this resilience and faith that makes Butterfly such a wonderfully strong character. Unfortunately, when Pinkerton does eventually come back, it is only to reveal that he has married again and to take care of their son. Discovering this heart-breaking news, Cio-Cio-San commits suicide so that her son can live a prosperous life knowing that his mother didn’t abandon him.

When I first started watching Madama Butterfly, I found it a bit ridiculous, with non-japanese performers dressing up as geishas and over-exaggerated facial expressions. Without immersing yourself in it, opera can seem quite silly. However, this is how opera stays true to itself, showing the deep, intense emotions that people are often too afraid to reveal. I was surprised by how quick the opera was.

The set was very minimalistic, just like most houses in Japan. The costumes were simple and beautiful. My favourite being Butterfly’s wedding robes which she wears all through out the first act and at the end of the second. There are panels upstage, that slide both horizontally and vertically. While the room stays the same, the panels reveal a backdrop that changes to portray the different seasons, symbols and moods. This simplicity makes every symbol stand out like a sore thumb, conveying the message clearly. This is shown at the end when a cherry blossom tree is revealed, with the petals slowly falling to the floor, perhaps representing the end of Cio-Cio-San’s innocence.

Each act flew by and amazed me. My favourite part was Act 2, where I heard the aria, “Un bel di vedremo” (One Fine Day) for the first time. Ermonela Jaho gives a stunning portrayal of Butterfly. Each word floats like the smoke that is described in the song. “A thread of smoke arising on the sea in the far horizon.” Smoke of the ship that will contain her husband, eager to arrive and bring her back to America. It is evident that she has imagined this scenario many times and finds deep tranquillity within it. The only way to make her last through the years of waiting would be this image in her mind. This song that she hears, a lullaby as it will, to put her mind and heart at ease. When the robins have made their nests, he will come. He will come on a ship of stars and stripes, and she will run into his open arms. At this point the music is high in pitch, light in tone and soft as a cloud. It is as if we are floating with her, letting her mind drift to happy places. Perhaps the fact that the music is floating shows that it isn’t real, she is keeping her head in the clouds, and refusing to keep her feet on the ground. As soon as anyone mentions the possibility that he won’t come back, her voice darkens.

One thing that I noticed in this opera is that it is not only Butterfly that has admirable qualities.  All of the three women, Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki and Kate, are strong in their own right. Elizabeth Deshong gives a remarkable performance of her character, Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid. She knows the truth, the reality to Cio-Cio-San’s situation and is heart-broken by it everyday. Having the need to pray when Butterfly won’t. Like Butterfly, she is also resilient. Even though she knows in her heart that Pinkerton will not come back for Butterfly, she sticks by her. She looks after her son, tries to talk sense into Butterfly but also joins in her belief when she helps scatter petals around the room, making the room presentable for Pinkerton when he arrives on his ship that they’ve finally spotted coming into the harbour. The love that she has for Butterfly is boundless.

I did find a few flaws within the performance. There were a few moments where Jaho broke out of character to move her hair or to cough, but it only would’ve been noticeable because it’s being shown close up on camera. Furthermore, in the humming chorus, at the end the camera zoomed in when it should’ve stayed out. The image of Cio-Cio-San sitting in her wedding robes, silently crying in the dark next to her son and maid, patiently waiting in vain for Pinkerton to arrive is mesmerising. The rest of the room dark and empty, just Butterfly and her new family (her old family cut her off when she converted religions) not giving up until the very end.

During Act 3, Pinkerton’s new wife, Kate, shows kindness towards someone who would be considered a threat to her. She must have a good strength of mind to put her own needs and insecurities aside to help a young innocent girl. At this point I could really see the resemblance between her and Ellen from Miss Saigon. No wonder both are loved so much!

It wouldn’t be fair of me to not mention the men too. Marcelo Puente did an amazing job of portraying Pinkerton. He kept a good balance of showing his love and insensitivity. In Act 3 he wasn’t really sorry for his actions, he was singing in the beginning about how he was going to marry an American further on in the future. He just took Butterfly for a ride, not considering how it would affect her. He didn’t have the decency to face the pain that he had caused in the end, even saying himself that he was a coward and running away due to remorse. Perhaps in a way, he was too afraid to face himself and face Butterfly who part of him did love.  

There are other men in the opera who are more sure of themselves. Consul Sharpless (Scott Hendricks) always supports Butterfly and shows a fondness for her. He tries to dissuade Pinkerton from the beginning, always having Butterfly’s feelings in mind. Right until the very end he shows compassion and empathy, not being able to read out Pinkerton’s letter stating he is not coming back, due to shattering the faux happiness that Butterfly has created. He has his head on straight, and represents the logical side of Pinkerton; the side that Pinkerton chooses to ignore.

Although I don’t know much about opera, this story really does fascinate me. It is simple and timeless. All the phenomenal performers compliment the music greatly. All of the vocals were flawless, full of life and passion. I would gladly see this performance again if I could!

That’s all of my thoughts on Madama Butterfly! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my experiences with it! Have you seen any operas before? If you haven’t then maybe you could try this one, it’s great for someone new to the scene. Let me know your own thoughts in the comments down below. 

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