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Madama Butterfly Grimeborn Opera Festival – Review

Nastasha Jouhl as Madama Butterfly
Nastasha Jouhl as Madama Butterfly Photo Robert Workman

Madama Butterfly is probably one of the world’s best loved operas. Puccini’s tragic tale of a young Japanese woman abandoned by the American husband she adores is so popular that it even inspired a smash hit musical.

So it’s a bold move to take a work that so many people know and love, and radically reinterpret it, as Julia Burbach has done for the Grimeborn Opera Festival. The scene that greets us as we step inside the candlelit theatre is like something from a Japanese horror film. Butterfly herself lying prostrate on the floor in a bloodstained white dress, long dark hair covering her face as she scribbles feverishly with chalk on the ground.

And so begins this haunting re-telling of the classic story, in which Butterfly, far from being the desperate young girl we recognise, becomes a far more sinister figure. Prowling the stage throughout, bathed in stark white light, she becomes an unsettling and ever-present witness to her own downfall, and her final act is not one of hopelessness, but of calculated vengeance.

As different as the framing may be, though, the story loses none of its emotional intensity, not least because of the incredibly intimate setting at the Arcola Theatre. No need for opera glasses here; the tragedy is played out mere inches away. The confined space necessarily requires a stripped back version of the story; the chorus never appear on stage (I actually have no idea where they were hiding), and many scenes require an act of collaborative imagination from the audience to fill in the gaps. The most notably absent character is Butterfly’s young son by Pinkerton, leading us on occasion to begin questioning if he’s even real, or only a figment of Butterfly’s feverish imagination as she begins to descend into madness.

Thomas Atkins is suitably despicable as Pinkerton, but with enough swagger and charm to see why Butterfly fell for him in the first place, while Gareth Brynmore John is infinitely more sympathetic as Sharpless, really coming into his own in the final, emotional scenes. But the night belongs, rightly, to Natasha Jouhl, who’s mesmerising as the tragic heroine, slipping effortlessly in both appearance and tone from girlish excitement to avenging ghost, and back again.

Nao Nagai’s lighting is used to great effect, particularly during Butterfly’s long overnight vigil, as the daylight fades and night descends, followed by the dawn. As she stands motionless for several minutes while the light shifts around her, it really does feel as though we’ve shared those hours together.

One word of warning – Madama Butterfly is sung in the original Italian, with English surtitles, but if you’re sitting in the middle section of the theatre, it’s hard to see the screens without turning your head. Far easier to give up and enjoy the Italian; you might not catch every detail of the story, but it’s preferable to spending the evening trying to watch the screen and stage simultaneously.

The premiere of Julia Burbach’s new Madama Butterfly is original, memorable and highly effective; I’ll certainly never look at the story in quite the same way again. The confined space and the consequent restrictions do nothing to lessen the emotional Impact – if anything they intensify it – and the unique twist ending leaves us with a feeling of a story not yet finished. I’d love to know what happens next.
4 stars

Review by Liz Dyer

Arcola Theatre presents Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
August 25th 2015 – August 29th 2015

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the best-loved operas of all time. Julia Burbach’s revelatory new production, inspired by Japanese folkloric ghost stories, premieres at Grimeborn 2015.

Sung in the original Italian (with English surtitles) but radically reframed, this haunting psychological rendering of Puccini’s masterpiece is alive with the mysteries of memory and mortality.

Julia Burbach is Staff Director at the Royal Opera House, where she recently revived Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In 2014 she directed two productions of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen: one for Bury Court Opera; the other as a site-specific production in Salon Wilde Renate nightclub, Berlin. Madama Butterfly is her debut production at Grimeborn.

Thursday 27th August 2015


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