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May 11, 2014 9:16 pm
It would take a more foolhardy director than David McVicar to imagine Madama Butterfly outside the historical-cultural setting specified by Puccini. Nevertheless, hidden beneath the opera’s alluring Japonaiserie and its quaint 19th-century depictions of sexual exploitation and American imperialism, a more modern interpretation is possible – a proto-feminist Butterfly, at odds with the Puccinian “poor little girl” stereotype. From start to finish the title character asserts her independence from societal expectations of a woman’s role. Cio-Cio San decides her fate with courage and determination. Her suicide is the ultimate act of liberation from a world that prescribes subjugation.
Far-fetched? It’s true, none of this is written across Scottish Opera’s 14-year-old production, still one of McVicar’s most elegant and tasteful shows, but it looms large in any consideration of Hye-Youn Lee’s performance of the title role. Asian Butterflys not only look more authentic than their western counterparts; they also tend to play the part more assertively, and this was palpably the case with Lee, who is Korean. Nothing – neither the Bonze’s fury, nor Pinkerton’s hush money – was ever going to compromise this Butterfly’s integrity, even if it involved the ultimate sacrifice. Lee is a confident performer, with a voice of ample power and stamina, but she just falls short of touching the heart. Would it have been different if she had played the docile doormat?
The other notable contributors to this revival, rehearsed by Elaine Kidd, are Christopher Purves’s sharply observed American consul and the conductor Marco Guidarini, who energises an orchestra that has been starved of inspiration for too long. What impressed at Thursday’s opening night were not just Guidarini’s complete command of the idiom and his touch-tone control of dynamics, but also the sense he conveyed of a score that moves quickly and seamlessly. Puccini’s masterly orchestration really blossomed.
Handy as this classic production may be for Scottish Opera’s morale, it is little more than a stopgap for a company desperately in need of new ideas, a coherent sense of mission and a higher profile. Butterfly tours extensively before reopening the transformed Theatre Royal in Glasgow during the Commonwealth Games at the end of July.
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