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Review: Madam Butterfly, New Theatre Oxford

Welsh National Opera's brand new production of Madam Butterfly landed at Oxford's New Theatre last night. Muddy went to the opening night - but did it fly?

Just back from the opening night of Welsh National Opera’s Madam Butterfly at the New Theatre Oxford, and writing quickly as you’ve only two more days to catch it – Weds (10 Nov) and Thurs (11 Nov). But if you love opera, catch it if you can, because it was extraordinary.

It’s a new production that premiered in Wales less than two months ago, and it replaces the WNO’s previous Madam Butterfly that had been in the company’s repertoire for over 40 years (which I saw in Cardiff with my dad in the late Eighties!). This production sees the return of WNO Conductor Laureate Carlo Rizzo and introduces a new creative team – the Australian director Lindy Hume and designer Isabella Bywater.

You know you’re getting something very different straight from the opening scene – critics have been split on whether super-stylised, futuristic ‘Hunger Games meets American Gigolo via The Hand Maid’s Tale costuming with its towering wigs and white knee high boots works (wot no kimono?) but I loved it. Hume describes her Butterfly as set in a “dystopic, near-future biosphere” – no idea what that means!

But I do know that by stripping out the Japanese influences and the culture clash between brash, see it-buy it-drop it America and traditional Japan it allowed a more ‘universal’ exposure of emotional cruelty and unrequited love. And the clever, minimalist set that centres on the modernist, trendy home of the American sailor Pinkerton – all shiny promise and pure sea vistas – contrasts in Act 2 with the piles of rubbish piling up, revealed as the set revolves to reveal the reality behind the facade and Pinkerton’s ultimate betrayal.

In the title role, Joyce El-Khoury initially takes a little getting used to as a delicate Japanese 15 year old (she’s packing the kind of curves Nuts would have gone mad for in the Nineties) but her singing is sublime, with great control in the upper register and delicacy in her acting. Pinkerton’s schmoozy self-satisfied charisma is perfectly delivered by tenor Leonardi Caimi – flicking up his gold AmEx card to buy the house (and Butterfly) is particularly gruesome. Kezia Bienek as Suzuki and Julian Boyce as the Imperial Commissioner both particularly strong in support.

Joyce El-Khoury and Leonardo Caimi in the lead roles

As a side note, it was great to have the orchestra so close to the action – they weren’t hidden way down in a pit as orchestras so often are and I was really getting it from the french horns! At the end of the opera conductor Rizzo went on stage to thank the orchestra personally. Apparently with Covid restrictions they’d hardly practised together and it was a bit of an ‘oh well, let’s see what happens’ performance for Rizzo.

What actually happened was that the whole evening was magical and moving and further evidence, if it’s even needed these days, why Welsh National Opera is an internationally fêted opera company. Go see if it you can.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: Lovers of opera will love the musicality and professionalism of WNO. Those open to modern interpretations will particularly enjoy this. Generally I think those who have never been to opera should start with a comedy but this is such a striking production I’ve changed my mind.

Not for: Purists who want their fill of Japanoise. The opera is in Italian with English subtitles which you’ll either love or hate.

Tickets from £13. New Theatre Oxford, 24-26 George St, Oxford OX1 2AG.

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