Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
Director David Freeman’s popular interpretation of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly featuring the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra returns to the Albert Hall for the sixth time. This twisting tale of honor and betrayal follows young Ciocio-san (Nam-young Kim) who marries American Lieutenant Pinkerton (James Edwards) only to be abandoned and left with his child. Then even greater tragedy ensues when Pinkerton returns with a new American wife in order to claim custody of his son.
As well as a distinguished cast (which changes from show to show), the strength of this production lies in David Roger’s visually-stunning circular set recreating a Japanese house surrounded by water. This is used playfully as the action unfolds so wherever you’re seated there is a sense of magic. And often this is right by your sides, such as during Ciocio-san’s ceremonial entrance with her female courtiers in tow. Then later, steaming vapor and floating candles light the couple’s wedding night, adding to the growing romance of their love.
Early in the story, there’s a sweet sensuality between Ciocio-san and Pinkerton with Nam-young Kim’s pure, angelic voice contrasting James Edwards’s powerful performance as a man hopelessly oblivious to Japanese customs. When Ciocio-san requests him to love her she stands across a precipice with water flowing between them, the staging foreshadowing their imminent separation.
By the second act, the older Ciocio-san has transformed into a more elegant yet less patient version of herself and the pools of water, once emblematic of fertility, have become as drained as Ciocio-san’s finances while she waits for her husband to return. Beautiful cherry blossoms on the house’s periphery are taken down in anticipation of Pinkerton’s arrival only to be then strewn across her bed in funereal fashion.
Opera lovers longing to melt into the beauty of Puccini’s masterpiece are in the right place with this talented set of artists. Less desirable however are the variable acoustics of the Albert Hall, and also the choice to sing in English. Much of Illica and Giacosa’s beautiful libretto is lost in translation, limiting our moment-by-moment engagement with the story. While we wished subtitles could have been provided, this visually and aurally stunning production will nonetheless tug at your heartstrings and leave you with goosebumps.
By Sophia Shluger
Madam Butterfly runs at the Royal Albert Hall until 15 March. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.