The King’s Head Theatre in Islington has a long history of success in producing pared down versions of high opera that are original, accessible and entertaining. Director Paul Higgins modern take on Madam Butterfly manages to sustain the trend, but more because of the quality of the singing and the enduring beauty of Puccini’s music and the original story. Setting the opera in modern day Japan is a good way of highlighting the parallels between the plight of early twentieth century Japanese girls, that fell victim to poverty and the machinations of a marriage broker, and modern school girls, who attract the attentions of older men under the practice of compensated dating called joshei-kosei. This version works well in generating our discomfort on hearing that Butterfly is just fifteen years old and is totally enthralled by Pinkerton. However, while these issues are credible, the delivery sadly fails somewhat.
The problem is that the setting of a maid’s café and the speed with which a shorter format takes us through the story leaves this production feeling somewhat 2-dimensional. We get little insight into Pinkerton’s character and, while operagoers are used to suspending their disbelief, it is hard for a western actress to convey a young Japanese girl in a schoolgirl’s outfit without looking somewhat macabre. Nevertheless, this latter aspect is helped by both Butterfly’s adoption of modern American dress in the second act, and the power and purity of Becca Marriott’s singing. Sarah Denbee is also a very strong and suitably shrewish as Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid. There are some nice touches of humour in terms of Suzuki’s dress (khaki socks with flip-flops to compliment her kimono), but half-hearted attempts in the libretto fall a little flat and run the risk of undermining the true pathos of the story. Fortunately, the other singers are similarly impressive. Baritone Sam Pantcheff has all the right levels of discomfort as the American consul, and Sophie Goldrick a sympathetic “second” Mrs Pinkerton. As ever at the King’s Head, the work of just two musicians in conveying all that is needed is truly amazing.
Despite the misgivings over the delivery of a more modern story, the strength of the performances and the beauty of the original opera still make this a production well worth seeing.