Finely honed performances in Grange Park Opera’s Madama Butterfly

Puccini: Madama Butterfly ****

Grange Park Opera, 31st May 2012

Claire Rutter (Cio-Cio-San) © Alastair Muir

Claire Rutter (Cio-Cio-San)
© Alastair Muir

Festival Season is upon us once again. Situated in picturesque Hampshire landscape, Grange Park Opera is perhaps the most idyllic of them all. The Doric portico at the Greek temple eastern end of the mansion looms majestically over picnickers on the verdant sward below and the atmosphere is stylish without being stuffy. Its venerable cousin, Glyndebourne, opened a fortnight ago, Garsington this weekend, Holland Park next Thursday and Buxton in July. Festival seasons offer opportunities to delve into the operatic vaults to rustle up the sort of rarity the main companies wouldn’t touch with a bargepole – Zanetto, L’Olimpiade, La Périchole, Intermezzo and L’enfant et les sortileges all get outings this summer. Grange Park’s 2012 season doesn’t deviate from the operatic mainstream – Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades surely cannot qualify as a rarity these days – but in staging Madama Butterfly, it’s laying down the gauntlet to the ‘big boys’ in much the same manner that it did with last season’s Tristan und Isolde with a similar rate of success.

With the limited dimensions of the stage added to financial considerations – Grange Park receives not a sou of public funding – it means that productions cannot boast lavish sets and elaborate stage machinery. Among the list of supporters, Sir Stuart Rose, who sponsors the golden parasols of Butterfly’s entourage (not in the current M&S catalogue!). In contrast to Anthony Minghella’s ENO production, revived just a few weeks ago, John Doyle’s production (previously seen at Nevill Holt in 2010) is simplicity itself; a backdrop looking like a giant sheet of parchment, complete with Japanese characters drawn down the right-hand side, in front of which a steep incline sweeps across the stage, like a broad brush stroke representing a mountain-side above Nagasaki. In Mark Bailey’s set, a single paper screen constitutes the house Pinkerton purchases on a 999-year lease, behind which effective use is made of characters in silhouette. The minimalist approach isn’t detrimental in the slightest. Less so often equates to more. Although the dancers, puppeteers and black-lacquered set at ENO created spectacle, I couldn’t help feeling it got in the way of the drama. Here, the opulence came through the costumes – traditional kimonos and 19th century western dress – while the sparse staging allowed the audience to focus on the dramatic interpretations of the cast.

© Alastair Muir

© Alastair Muir

Doyle draws convincing portrayals from his entire cast, one of the benefits of such a small auditorium being that facial expressions register with ease. Not every directorial decision paid off. Movement around the set, carefully choreographed by Nikki Woollaston, was stylistic, with characters and chorus tending to walk in right-angled pathways, which verged on ritualistic tedium. The love duet at the end of Act I sometimes suffered from the continued presence of the servants, and the cherry blossom petals cascading from the flies for the Flower Duet seemed a poor substitute for a garden. However, using a child for Sorrow (a wonderfully solemn little boy) paid off handsomely and, dressed in his sailor suit, blindfolded, waving the Stars and Stripes as Butterfly commits jigai behind the screen left a strong mental image. How to follow that? Usually with the sole appearance of Pinkerton. I’ve even seen a production where Suzuki follows her mistress into suicide, but here Doyle brings back the other characters as well in a most affecting finale. (Yes, tears had to be brushed away.)

Following her excellent recent Tosca for English National Opera, it’s obvious that Claire Rutter is the perfect spinto soprano for the role of Butterfly, powerful enough to cut through Puccini’s orchestral climaxes and yet able to gradate her voice down to the merest whisper of a pianissimo. This was amply demonstrated in an ‘Un bel dì’, which soared. The contrast between Cio-Cio-San in Acts I and II was as marked as I have ever witnessed. The young bride of Act I is charmingly done, without resorting to ‘little girl’ vocal antics, while the tragic air of Butterfly after the long interval was particularly affecting; even though she berates Suzuki for believing the worst, you suspect Rutter’s Butterfly is already preparing for it. The final moments leading to Butterfly committing jigai were carried out with calm dignity.

© Alastair Muir

© Alastair Muir

Pinkerton was sung by Marco Panuccio who possesses a pleasant, lyric tenor which sometimes felt a bit light – he wouldn’t fill a larger house in this repertoire – but sang with great sensitivity. Rodolfo, the Duke and Alfredo would appear to be safer repertoire. Panuccio seemed particularly tested when it came to Act II and the great trio which precedes “Addio fiorito asil”.

Sara Fulgoni’s Suzuki was a strong presence throughout, despite having to shuffle about the stage in tiny steps (difficult for so tall a lady). She and Rutter combined gloriously in the Flower Duet and her stinging attack on Goro registered well. She and Rutter shepherded the child actor around deftly. Stephen Gadd’s Sharpless was as sympathetically portrayed as I can ever recall. His strong contributions to the duet “Dovunque al mondo” and the Act II trio make one regret that Puccini didn’t give Sharpless an aria. Finely nuanced acting drew the eye so that the American Consul was the one character who could foresee the events which unfolded.

© Alastair Muir

© Alastair Muir

Andrew Rees was a more heroic-voiced tenor than we’re used to hearing in the role of the weasly marriage-broker Goro; indeed, one could imagine him singing a very respectable Pinkerton. Derek Welton’s Bonze spewed forth his fiery venom effectively and Marta Fontanals-Simmons was a stately, warm-voiced Kate Pinkerton. Alex Duliba was under-powered as Yamadori, the rich prince pining for Butterfly.

The English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Gianluca Marciano, was on fine form, although the singers were occasionally overwhelmed by great washes of sound coming from the pit, not helped by the auditorium’s size and dry acoustic. The smaller than usual number of strings allows plenty of conversational woodwind detail to emerge delicately from the pages of the score. When Puccini does allow his orchestra to pull out the stops, especially in the Intermezzo following the Humming Chorus, the ECO responded enthusiastically and let rip with glorious abandon.

In contrast to the first night Coliseum audience, that at Grange Park was a model of perfect behaviour: no silly guffawing as Sharpless attempts to read Pinkerton’s letter to Butterfly, and no intrusive applause after “Un bel dì” or the Humming Chorus. And while we’re at it, an additional hurrah to the director for not breaking up Act II with a drama-sapping interval.

Sumptuous costumes and finely honed performances work well in front of the parchment-coloured set. Operatic lepidopterists should be keen to net this particular festival production.

This review first appeared on Opera Britannia.

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