REVIEW: Ellen Kent’s Madama Butterfly

Ellen Kent’s production of Madama Butterfly elicits parallels with the war in Ukraine, writes Megan Amato.

NOT a dry eye could be seen by the end of Giacomo Puccini’s classic Italian opera Madama Butterfly at the Edinburgh Playhouse on 30 April, performed by the Ukrainian National Municipal Opera Kyiv, presented by Senbla, and produced by award winner Ellen Kent.

Inspired by John Luther Long’s short story Madame Butterfly and Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was first performed to an unenthusiastic audience in 1904, before he revised the two-act performance into three and turned it into the international success that is retold globally.

The audience is led in by a fabulous orchestra conducted by composer Vasyl Vasylenko before unveiling the stunning but simple Japanese garden set with gorgeous botanicals, a Japanese screen, incense, and fountain that you could hear trickling throughout the performance.

We are introduced to the smooth voice of tenor Vitalii Liskovetskyi as United States naval officer BF Pinkerton in Nagasaki, Japan, as he awaits his 15-year-old bride, Cio-Cio-san – or Madama Butterfly – played by the immensely talented Korean soprano Elena Dee.

In his crisp white navy uniform, Pinkerton brushes off warnings from the US consul, Sharpless, played by the charismatic Petru Racovitae, not to hurt Cio-Cio-san, who naively trusts them. Pinkerton intends to enjoy the moment and then make sure of Japan’s flexible divorce policy by sailing off alone before the sun rises.

Liskovetskyi plays the careless cad well, both his acting and notes coming off as nonchalant and careless. Racovitae’s consul is a more sympathetic character: paternalistic, kind but ineffectual as he worries over Pinkerton’s intentions but does nothing to stop them.

Accompanied by Ecaterina Timbaliuk as her maid Suzuki – who, aside from Dee herself, had the most stage presence – the ecstatic bride marries Pinkerton in front of all her family in a stunning sequence featuring exquisitely-dressed guests until her uncle, the Bonze, arrives and renounces her for converting to Christianity. Aside from Suzuki, Pinkteron is now all she has left, and they spend their first night together.

Three years later, Cio-Cio-san is stubbornly waiting for Pinkerton after he promised to return in the spring, refusing to believe that she has been abandoned. When the consul turns up with news that Pinkerton will be coming back, he omits that he won’t be returning to her as he’s unable to break her heart. After he asks her what she will do if he doesn’t return, Cio-Cio-san introduces him to her son, “Sorrow”, and begs him to tell Pinkerton.

In the final act, Pinkerton finally returns with the consul and young American wife in fabulous costume in tow, who is willing to raise Sorrow as her own. Pinkerton, realising he now must face the repercussions of his actions, cowardly leaves it for his wife, the consul, and Suzuki to break the news. As expected, Cio-Cio-san is desolate, but gives her son up before tragically taking her own life.

Overall, this was a wonderful show for those wanting to see an opera more traditional than some of Kent’s other productions. While Dee certainty stole the show with her range – and the little boy playing Sorrow stole our hearts as he calmy fumbled with his blindfold – everyone put in a solid performance to make the show memorable.

However, what was particularly striking were the parallels between the themes of the opera and what is currently happening in Ukraine. Pinkerton represents a dominant culture carelessly taking what it wants from another and the consequent violence of those actions. While Cio-Cio-san may have easily surrendered her name, identity, and culture to Pinkerton, as the performers stood around the Ukrainian flag with their hands on their hearts and sang their national anthem, it’s clear that they will not.

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