Review: Ellen Kent’s Madama Butterfly at the Grand Opera House York


James Clay (he/him) enjoys recent revival of classic opera

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Image by MustangJoe via Pixabay

By James Clay

The Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv staged an exceptionally enchanting performance of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly, produced by Ellen Kent, on Saturday 27 April 2024. The raucous round of applause upon ending was a sign of the outstanding solo performances throughout the night.

Madama Butterfly is, at its cocoon, the story of an innocent young woman seeing love through rose tinted spectacles, and suffering the consequences of falling for a man whose intentions differ quite dramatically. Set in Japan, Butterfly – whose real name is Cio-Cio-San – marries B. F. Pinkerton, a US naval officer, who, unbeknownst to her, enters into the marriage simply for convenience. She abandons her faith and her family’s approval for this match which, after three of years absence, she learns meant nothing more than convenience for Pinkerton, who returns to Japan with an American wife. As the opera closes, Butterfly commits suicide, moments before Pinkerton intended to express his reget at the manner in which he treated her.

One has to begin any review with a comment on the spectacular performance of Butterfly by the stand out lead Alyona Kistenyova. Given how much stage time Madama Butterfly affords to its female lead, any individual performance demands excellence. Not only did Kistenyova rise to the occasion vocally, her movement showed an equally impressive grasp of physical theatre which, at times, can be the thorn in the side of potential great operatic performances. She gently floated around the stage with beauty and delicacy.

Butterfly waits three years for Pinkerton to return yet still her love remains intact. This romantic endurance and exceptional patience were portrayed with patent clarity by Kistenyova. The burden of unrequited love, particularly given the presence of a child, bears heavy upon the shoulders of Butterfly. Kistenyova held herself as a somewhat bent over figure, perhaps demonstrating the almost psycho-sematic impact of love upon an individual.

Giorgi Meladze, who portrayed B. F. Pinkerton, had much less stage time but, whenever he appeared, he dominated the audiences’ attention. Meladze carried himself throughout with the dignity and strength one would expect from a US Naval Officer, helped perhaps by his naturally impressive stage presence. If anything, the performance of the two leads were as much a pleasure to one's eyes as they were to one's ears.

Supporting cast members were equally as captivating in their performances even if Madama Butterfly gives an inordinate degree of stage time to Butterfly as the lead. Irina Sproglis’ sombre portrayal of Butterfly’s maid Suzuki and the energy Yevhenii Vaskiv dedicated towards Goro, the marriage matchmaker, deserve particular recognition.

As an opera designed to be accessible for those of us who aren’t necessarily seasoned connoisseurs of the art, it opted for a clear set design, transporting one to the coastal foothills of Japan. At the rear of the stage stood Butterfly’s house with the classic Japanese architectural style of shoin-zukuri, even with fusuma sliding doors. This building was surrounded by hanging trees, fountains, rocks and the typical flora one would associate with the Japanese countryside. Whether it was this or the enchanting manner by which the leads performed, one genuinely did feel sucked into the events of the opera.

The stage being small and the set being both extensive and compact did however make early scenes with the whole ensemble seem a little cramped.  To their credit, Butterfly’s posse of associates did move in remarkable synchronisation but this failed to distract from just how packed in the whole ensemble seemed to feel. The ensemble resembled soldiers all standing formally in rank and file. Not only was it rather difficult to see what were presumably strong performances from those stuck in the rear, it also took away from how delicate and light the opera has to appear throughout every act.

Overall, it was a thoroughly enthralling evening and a great honour to Puccini’s classic opera.

Editor's Note: This performance was seen on 27 April 2024 at the Grand Opera House York.