21 February 2009

Madama Butterfly - Surrey Opera at The E. M. Forster Theatre, Tonbridge School, Kent - Saturday 21st February 2009


On a hillside overlooking Nagasaki, a young geisha, Ciochio San, marries Pinkerton, an American naval lieutentant, stationed in the area. Three years later, abandoned and renounced, she still awaits his return.

CioCho San – Rebecca Cooper
Pinkerton – Stephen Brown
Sharpless – Tim Baldwin
Suzuki – Rebecca Stockland
Goro – Christopher Ovenden
Kate Pinkerton – Elaine Hayward
Bonze – Paul Hancock
Yamadori – Alexander Walford

Anyone who knows me knows that "I Don’t Do Opera”. Its an art form that I’ve never really got into. But when a nice lady from Surrey Opera emailed me and offered me two free tickets in return for an ad on this site and a review, I thought “There’s a credit crunch on, after all” and looked up the times of the trains to Tonbridge. Unfortunately, Him Indoors had got wind of the fact that Tonbridge High Street is Charity Shop Heaven so, once we’d paid the bus and train fares, purchased 3 bags full of assorted junk, and been fleeced in Wetherspoons (never, ever eat in a chain pub if you can avoid it), I don’t think we saved that much. Particularly as the free tickets didn’t include a free programme. Still, it was a very good night out and made a nice change from slobbing in front of the TV watching Total Wipeout and eating monkey nuts. Speaking of which,

“How are the monkeys?”

“Oh, they’re fine, but we had to put the kangaroo down this morning. Arthritis, you know”.

is not something I suspect is often heard in the hallowed precincts of the E. M. Forster Theatre, or indeed anywhere, but the group of upper class yobs sitting, and standing, and lying, and kneeling all over the seats immediately behind us carried on their conversations at such a high decibel level that I’m sure the entire audience heard it. The entire audience also probably heard them coughing, rattling their bags, changing seats with each other during the performance, talking during the orchestral intermezzo and hawhawhawing loudly at anything that their smutty little minds could twist into a sexual reference.

The day before, while attending a rehearsal for La Cenerentola (being performed at the Spa Theatre, Bridlington next week by Oyster Opera – book your tickets now and no, they haven’t offered me a freebie in return for a review, which is a shame because its Bloody Good), and discussing Butterfly it was mooted that “You can’t really do anything wrong with Puccini. It's so good it stages itself”. This clearly was not the view of the director, who “updated” the Nagasaki setting from the late 19th century to 1950 – even though Nagasaki was practically bombed out of all existence in 1945. Would, therefore, the residents be quite so pleased to welcome an American warship into the harbour and carry on with “their incessant and enthusiastic experimentation with American style and fashion”? I think not. This updating also meant that Pinkerton wore a modern suit and therefore totally lost his identity as an American naval officer, that CioCioSan wore a 50s “New Look” dress for Act II and that the chorus wore a strange mix of kimonos and modern dress. Very odd, both in concept and the overall look, as was the fact that, although CioCioSan is referred to as a geisha and therefore rightly dressed and made up as one, the entire chorus (and the minor Japanese characters) all wore white face makeup, which brings the whole thing down to the level of The Mikado. And if you are going to do this, for pity’s sake get a responsible member of the chorus to check everyone’s make up and ensure its all the same degree of whiteness – some of the chorus looked like Marcel Marceau and others looked like they were merely in the process of recovering from a dose of flu. A good Oriental base make up and a bit of eye shadow would have been far more effective and far more realistic.

“This is SUCH a contrast for us. We went to see He’s Really Not That Into You this afternoon hawhawhaw. How many bits are there in this thing? I didn’t really get the bit with the tie.”

I did. It’s a symbol of Western dress and therefore of Westernisation. But by golly was it used to the point of overkill – to the point where Acts II and III seemed to be becoming “The Tie Acts”. First it was hanging with Pinkerton’s shirt on the inside of the door of the fridge (don’t ask). Then it was used as a blindfold, then a sash. Then Sorrow got to wear it. Then it was a blindfold again. I did begin to wonder whether the ending had been rewritten to have CioCioSan hang herself with it. Thankfully we were spared this. But not before it had been used to point up every conceivable metaphor and I was sick of it. It even turned up as part of the picture on the front of the programme. Overkill!

Lighting, the bete noire of the touring company, was a little shaky at the start, with a few nasty dark spots on the stage, but improved considerably throughout the performance. Him Indoors has asked me to mention that the cyc (backcloth to you and me) was particularly competently lit for the entire evening.

"I live in Oxford. Well, that’s not really true. I’m studying to be a vicar at Oxford. Gosh, the acoustic in here is really dry”.

If it was (can an acoustic be dry?), this didn’t seem to bother either the orchestra pit or the stage. A relatively huge orchestra of 25 (two flutes, two clarinets, two trumpets but, regrettably, no second trombone) gave it considerable welly for the entire evening under the very capable baton of Jonathan Butcher. Pit and stage only parted company once all night, but was quickly rescued. Male chorus, surprisingly, noticeably better than female chorus. Among the supporting cast, the gong goes to Christopher Ovenden for an outstandingly sung and acted Goro, with Honourable Mention to Tim Baldwin as Sharpless. Apologies to Elaine Howard who took the very small role of Kate Pinkerton; vocally adequate she may have been but was far too old to be convincing. Although on for only minutes, she was left awkwardly and completely abandoned on the side of the stage by the director, who should also have vetoed the Posh Spice sunglasses.

In the principal stable I thought Rebecca Stockland sung the role of Suzuki much better than she acted it. I know it’s a difficult and often thankless part - Butterfly gets all the big tunes and all the emoting whereas Suzuki just gets to be solid and dependable – but more could have been made of the part, particularly in the closing scenes. Admittedly, her costume looked odd, uncomfortable and neither fish nor fowl in aesthetic terms which cannot have helped; it would have been better, I think, to have dressed her in a black kimono like most of the ladies chorus. Stephen Brown threw out top notes confidently, without any apparent effort and like they were going out of fashion, damn his hide (sorry, bit of tenor jealousy there!) but, again, was not best served by his costumes. Rebecca Cooper pulled out all the stops vocally in the incredibly demanding title role and was Pretty Darned Impressive, although I personally think One Fine Day needs more vocal light and shade than it was given at this performance. Mind you, she still managed to pull my heart up into my throat and squeeze a couple of tears out of these cynical old eyes while performing it. And that’s pretty good going for someone who “Doesn’t Do Opera”.

Thank you, Surrey Opera, for the very enjoyable evening. Shame the audience wasn't as enjoyable - but at least the kangaroo is spared the misery of being brayed at any more.

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