Friday, 14 January 2011

Madame Butterfly, King's Head Theatre

I was seriously disappointed by this Madame Butterfly. The serious limitations of putting on lyric theatre designed (acoustically) for a space several times larger were laid not so much bare as bald. Equally, the drama, as the company's increasingly elusive nom de geurre suggests, is Up Close. Too close for a melodrama that needs the space for the audience to engage in suspension of disbelief, in exactly the same way that acoustic sound needs room to breathe.

Part of the thrill of these productions is seeing exactly how the team make the necessary changes to the original to counter or cope with the limitations - or opportunities - the space presents. The greatest updating was to turn the Geishas into ladyboys. It might have had currency if we weren't forced into a double mental somersault, given that the men dressing as women are, through vocal necessity, actually women. This isn't the farce-functional layering of, say, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. No, conversely the audience is burdened with a redoubling of imagination just so that the stageplay can be taken at face value.

There are two reasons for optimism. Firstly, someone has had the good sense to realise that whilst you can get away with all sorts of mucking about in a piece like this, you simply cannot half-bake the casting of the eponymous heroine, Cio-Cio San. Laura Casey had sufficient reserves of voice to make something of the sonority and sinuousness of this testing role. I found her always admirable and occasionally affecting and long to hear her sing in a more appropriate space.

Secondly I admired the nano-orchestra of a single violin and clarinet playing in tandem with the piano direction of Elspeth Wilkes. It's important not only for the aesthetics of the work but also the support of the singers to provide more than just a skeletal accompaniment to their sung roles - to provide a sense of the mist and nimbus of the orchestration. That I stopped worrying about this early on in the evening is intended as a complement.

If they're going to do Puccini, they should do Puccini. If they're going to do something based on Puccini, the production should be about the new idea not about the pilfered old one. I would also like to go and see production by a company which has a buzz because they put on fresh, engaging, well-prepared productions of opera - not the other way around. As Stephen Sondheim wrote, you've gotta get a gimmick: well, the company are giving the impression they've gotta get an opera to keep the exhausted gimmick in business. I hope that's not the case and I look forward to a more sensible choice of repertory opera (the forthcoming Coronation Of Poppea) with which to test the worth of the King's Head Theatre properly.

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