Madama Butterfly

Puccini’s iconic opera Madame Butterfly gets a gothic makeover at this year’s Grimeborn, the Arcola’s opera season. With £15 ticket prices and further discounts available when booking multiple shows Grimeborn aims to introduce new audiences to the art form.

Rarely is it possible to see opera at such close range, the movements and emotions of the characters visible so clearly as they are only a few feet away.

In Royal Opera House staff director Julia Burbach’s darkly re-imagined version the Arcola’s large studio 1 is transformed into a squalid den littered with paper lanterns, candles, origami cranes and chalk drawings all over the walls and stairs. Butterfly (Natash Jouhl) is dressed in a tattered white gown spattered with blood and moves through the opening sequences of the opera unseen, a shadow haunting the conversations between B.F. Pinkerton (Thomas Atkins) and Sharpless (Gareth Brynmore John) as they light-heartedly discuss how the American captain Pinkerton will seduce the 15 year old Japanese Geisha, Butterfly.

Puccini’s music and the virtuosity of the opera singers in this production are combined with an innovative immersive set and arrangement that draws on Japanese folkloric ghost stories. Stripped of the usual pomp of a full blown opera with elaborate scenes, full orchestra and proscenium arch splendour the experience is entirely different to the more traditional operatic spectacle. Rarely is it possible to see opera at such close range, the movements and emotions of the characters visible so clearly as they are only a few feet away.

This both increases and diminishes the impact of the music. In the first act, where the dark story is slowly built up, the scene set for Butterfly’s tragic downfall it is a huge advantage to be this close to the action, the love scene between Butterfly and Pinkerton perfectly suited to such an intimate setting. In the second act, the power of Jouhl’s jaw-dropping solos, searing with the pain of Butterfly’s heartbreak, are slightly lost in a space that isn’t big enough to contain them.

Supported by an off stage chorus and accompanied only by a piano the cast flawlessly pull off a hugely difficult task, the production a shining example of how opera can be adapted in an informal and accessible setting. 

Reviews by Lettie Mckie

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The Blurb

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the best-loved operas of all time. Julia Burbach’s revelatory new production, inspired by Japanese folkloric ghost stories, premieres at Grimeborn 2015.

Sung in the original Italian (with English surtitles) but radically reframed, this haunting psychological rendering of Puccini’s masterpiece is alive with the mysteries of memory and mortality.

Julia Burbach is Staff Director at the Royal Opera House, where she recently revived Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. In 2014 she directed two productions of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen: one for Bury Court Opera; the other as a site-specific production in Salon Wilde Renate nightclub, Berlin. Madama Butterfly is her debut production at Grimeborn.