Sticking pins in fragile wings
My first opera was Madam Butterfly and I was accompanied by theatre critic Gerry Parker.
It was fabulous, I cried from curtain up to curtain down and loved every moment of the production.
This was back in 2002 and when I didn’t know the story.
On route to the Bristol Hippodrome nearly two decades ago I did remark I hoped it was in English?
Gerry soon enlightened me that composer Giacomo Puccini was Italian and therefore the opera was in Italian.
I resigned myself to an evening of decoding what is was all about from the dramatic movements of the performers.
What I didn’t know about then was surtitles (as opposed to subtitles) – the words running across the top of the stage and in English!
The Tobacco Factory staged Madam Butterfly in 2014 sung in English but I missed it so was thrilled to get tickets for Saturday night at the Bristol Hippodrome with my favourite company – the Welsh National Opera.
And it didn’t disappoint.
Hauntingly beautiful but strictly non-PC an American naval lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton uses and abuses 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San, a young geisha girl, much in the same way the Japanese army used captured Korean ‘comfort’ women.
The naïve Cio-Cio-San is lured into a false marriage arrangement with identical terms as a contract the paedophile Pinkerton negotiates renting their home-on-the-hill overlooking the harbour.
This was the acceptable face of prostitution at the turn of the century by conquering militaria.
Passion and heartbreak is the theme of the WNO’s spring season Love’s Poisoned Chalice.
It included a new production of Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Le Vin herbé, directed by former WNO genesis assistant director Polly Graham and Puccini’s much-loved La bohème.
Madam Butterfly completed the trio with Joachim Herz’s beautiful sepia-toned cherry-blossom draped production directed by Sarah Crisp and conducted by Lawrence Foster.
The rice-paper folding walls and the silhouette of those waiting is so sad.
I did worry about their fine vocal cords with all that cigarette smoking on stage?
Punctuated with irresistible music including the Humming Chorus and the moving Un bel dì aria, Madam Butterfly is a heartbreaking tale.
It sounded like Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing from the 1955 film of the same name set in the Far East.
South Korean-born soprano Karah Son was ‘indisposed’ on Saturday night so the role of Cio-Cio-San was taken by Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw making her company and role debut.
Natalya came with impeccable credentials having studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Houston Grand Opera Studio and was the first person ever to win both the Loveday Song Prize and Kathleen Ferrier Award.
She represented Wales at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2009, where she was a song prize finalist.
American tenor Jonathan Burton as Pinkerton was also making his WNO debut and played the role so well he got booed at the final curtain for his cruel lepidopterist portrayal.
Former WNO associate artist Rebecca Afonwy-Jones returning to WNO to sing the role of Suzuki also got a great reception as did fellow Welsh favourites David Kempster and Richard Wiegold also return to sing the roles of Sharpless and Bonze respectively.
My husband Rob said: “Madam Butterfly delivers a savage depiction of American imperialism and a ‘marriage’ where the man always has the upper hand.
“Pinkerton sails into Nagasaki, weds the beautiful Madam Butterfly and then departs for the US leaving behind a pregnant bride, who has given up her religion, her friends and her family for marriage and love.
“Pinkerton shows his disdain and arrogance for the servants by referring to them as mugs, 1, 2 and 3, and discards his wedding girls as useless trinkets.
“Natalya steals the show with her acting and singing and is on stage for virtually the whole performance.
“Her relationship with her maid, her one and only true friends is warmly and finely depicted and I found the death scene a real tearjerker.”
Preview: Love's poisoned chalice
Passion and heartbreak - Welsh National Opera’s spring season of intoxicating love stories
Two classic Puccini operas and a hidden opera gem make up Welsh National Opera’s Love’s Poisoned Chalice season, taking audiences on a journey of love, passion, heartbreak and tragedy through some of opera’s greatest tear jerking music.
At the heart of the spring season is a new production of Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Le Vin herbé, directed by former WNO genesis assistant director Polly Graham in her first main scale production for WNO.
Inspiring the season theme, Le Vin herbé - the spiked drink - is based on the myth of Tristan and Isolde.
Martin’s composition investigates the very meaning and function of myths, as a group of people come together to narrate this tragic love story.
Written between 1938 and 1941, Frank Martin’s version of the lovers’ tale is more in riposte than homage to Wagner, and influenced by the imminent World War as well as his own personal crisis of losing his first wife.
Iseult will be performed by Caitlin Hulcup and Tom Randle returns to WNO to sing the role of Tristan, with Catherine Wyn-Rogers singing the role of Iseult’s mother.
Originally conceived for 12 singers, this production will be performed with the entire WNO Chorus taking the role of narrator as in a Greek chorus, commenting on the dramatic action as the story unfurls.
An orchestra of seve string players and a pianist will be on stage throughout the opera, along with conductor James Southall.
As WNO genesis assistant director, Polly Graham received mentorship from internationally-renowned opera directors including WNO artistic director David Pountney, Mariusz Trelinski and Pierre Audi.
She returns to WNO following her work with WNO Youth Opera on Kommilitonen! during the summer of 2016 which received excellent reviews from the national media.
Opening the spring season is Puccini’s much-loved La bohème in a production which WNO first staged in 2012 to high praise from both critics and audiences.
Telling the tragic love story of Mimi and Rodolfo, this production transports audiences to the streets of bohemian Paris.
Annabel Arden’s 1913 inspired pre-war production will be directed in this revival by Caroline Chaney and will feature a double cast for Mimi and Rodolfo.
American soprano and rising star Marina Costa-Jackson makes her debut with WNO to sing Mimi, sharing the role with Jessica Muirhead who returns to WNO following her performance as Micaëla in Carmen in 2014.
Tenors Dominick Chenes and Matteo Lippi will share the role of Rodolfo.
La bohème will be conducted by Manlio Benzi who makes his debut at WNO.
Former WNO associate artist Gary Griffiths returns to WNO to take the role of Marcello, and Australian Lauren Fagan makes her WNO main stage debut in the role of Musetta.
Jihoon Kim takes the role of Colline and Gareth Brynmor John takes the role of Schaunard.
Completing the trio of spring operas is another Puccini classic: Madam Butterfly.
Joachim Herz’s beautiful sepia-toned production will be directed in this revival by Sarah Crisp and conducted by Lawrence Foster who returns to WNO following his performance conducting the world première of The Fall of the House of Usher in 2014.
Punctuated with irresistible music including the Humming Chorus and the moving Un bel dì aria, Madam Butterfly tells the heartbreaking tale of Cio-Cio-San’s love and loss at the hands of her American naval officer, Pinkerton.
This production features a double cast for the roles of Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton.
South Korean-born soprano Karah Son will share the role of Cio-Cio-San with Linda Richardson who returns to WNO following recent performances in I Puritani and Moses in Egypt.
American tenor Jonathan Burton makes his WNO debut, sharing the role of Pinkerton with Paul Charles Clarke who returns to WNO following performances in Sweeney Todd during the 2015/16 season.
Former WNO associate artist Rebecca Afonwy-Jones returns to WNO to sing the role of Suzuki, and fellow Welsh favourites David Kempster and Richard Wiegold also return to sing the roles of Sharpless and Bonze respectively.
During the spring tour, WNO will also be part of Dubai Opera’s inaugural season, taking performances of La bohème and Madam Butterfly to the new opera house.
Welsh National Opera
Le Vin Herbe - Tuesday, March 28 at 7.15pm
La Boheme – Wednesday and Thursday, March 29-30
Madam Butterfly – Friday and Saturday, March 31-April 1
All performances start a 7.30pm. Tickets from £12.90 with concessions available.
PHOTOS: Le Vin herbé 2017 showing WNO chorus and a scene from La bohème both by Robert Workman;
WNO Madam Butterfly 2017 Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San) Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Suzuki) by Jeremy Abrahams