Tag Archives: Puccini

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butterfly


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 2nd June, 2015


The evening begins with a brief classical piece, Perpetuum Mobile, with which Northern Ballet sets out its stall. This is the appetiser before the main event and it’s a joyous display of skill and a celebration of both the art form and the human body. It’s all about technique rather than any drama but it acclimatises me for what’s to come.

In a complete change of approach, Madame Butterfly begins with a highly stylised scene in which Butterfly, as a geisha, performs for three American naval officers. She’s a private dancer, a dancer for money – but one of the three men in white enters negotiations to marry her. So begins a romance. The fragile, shy Butterfly is coaxed out of her shell by Pinkerton (a dashing Javier Torres) in a lengthy pas de deux throughout which she runs the gamut of emotions. It’s a remarkable moment. By this point I am accustomed to hearing Puccini’s famous score without libretto, without soaring operatic voices, without voices at all, in fact!

The translation from opera to ballet works superbly. David Nixon’s choreography is expressive, blending and contrasting Western ballet with Japanese motifs. The set (by Steven Wilkins and Griz Pedley) is heavily influenced by Japanese prints (all the rage at the time when the piece is set), and the show is sumptuously lit by Alastair West.

Rachael Gillespie’s Butterfly is as delicate as her insect namesake. We see her come out of a cocoon of shyness, thanks to her love for Pinkerton, and we also see she has a sense of humour. At the piece’s climax, Butterfly’s suicide (hope that’s not a spoiler!) is ritualised and stylised much as the opening scene, but none the less powerful for it. An emotive and breath-taking performance.

There is excellent support from Ayami Miyata as Butterfly’s maid Suzuki, Ashley Dixon as Goro and Sean Bates as Sharples, who each bring characterisation to their roles in seemingly effortless and economical gestures. Mlindi Kulashe makes a bold impression as wealthy suitor Prince Yamadori.

The show is a feast for the eye and the ear. Puccini’s searing strains are well served by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, under the baton of Nathan Fifield, with instrumentation taking the place of the voices. It all adds up to a magnificent demonstration, and a thoroughly engaging piece of story-telling. I am not a ballet aficionado but I was utterly absorbed and moved by this powerful and accessible production.

Hello, sailors! Mlindi Kulashe and Sean Bates (Photo: Emma Kauldhar)

Hello, sailors! Mlindi Kulashe and Sean Bates (Photo: Emma Kauldhar)

Manon, Manoff


Hippodrome, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th March, 2014


A railway platform is the setting for Welsh National Opera’s current production of Puccini’s version of the classic French novel.  The chorus, in stylish business suits, are all commuters.  Des Grieux is similarly attired, a business man rather than a young student.  Yellow lines edge the stage – the kind you’re supposed to stand well behind.  It’s symbolic of a problem with this setting that keeps us at a remove from this world.  We are observers and sometimes it’s too voyeuristic for comfort.

It’s not a good fit of setting and content.  I don’t buy the chorus of commuters who sing chummily as if they’re a bunch of locals in a pub but behave like people do on trains, bustling about like ants intent on their individual business.  Manon is depicted as a victim from the get-go.  Exploited by her brother in the most horrible way, she is little more than a sex slave.  She might enjoy the trappings of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita but she is a kept woman and possibly a drug addict.   Women in this world are objects, chattel, possessions.  Exotic pets.  It’s a misogynistic place.  Des Grieux spots Manon when she is wrapped up in a red mackintosh and masked by sunglasses – this is the woman with whom he falls desperately in love.

As Des Grieux, Gwyn Hughes Jones is a more mature figure than the love struck youth I picture.  All the greater is his desperation because of this.  And Hughes Jones has a searing tenor that makes every note of his arias compelling.  Chiara Taigi’s Manon has the setting working against her: she snorts a line of cocaine, rolls over and off a sofa, and still keeps perfect control of her voice with all its dynamics and colours.

Under Lother Koeniga’s baton, Puccini’s score reaches out to us through the distancing effects of the staging.  Act 3 begins with some of his most beautiful music before a dramatic and disturbing scene in which some women, including Manon, are paraded around with their hands high above their heads like pieces of meat hanging from hooks.  They are being punished for fulfilling the roles imposed on them by the men in this horrible society.

The final scene is presented like an out-of-body experience.  Des Grieux and a Manon-a-like sit on a bench on the railway platform, like strangers, while Manon herself stands apart for her last aria, before walking off the platform.  Apart from the singing it was all a little too dispassionate for me, a little too stark.

Sounding wonderful, thanks to a top class cast and marvellous orchestra, this Manon is sometimes visually disturbing but a little too removed, however clever the ideas.

Sometimes la vita ain’t always so dolce, babe.

Poor but happy (and then sad and then dead)


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 11th November, 2013

Force of nature Ellen Kent brings her production of Puccini’s romantic love story to Wolverhampton (and around the country) in this lavish version that contains a cast of superb singers, hand-picked from all over Europe.

As poet Rodolfo, Sorin Lupu delights with his tenor as clear as a brass bell.  He is more than matched by a delicately beautiful Mimi – Elena Dee is remarkable.  Of course it’s a paradox of the role that the frail young thing dying of consumption is able to belt out with such power, but that’s opera for you.

Rodolfo’s buddies are a fine ensemble.  Their comic playing in the opening act (in which my Italian was stretched beyond its limit due to a glitch with the surtitles) is actually amusing.  This lot are poor but by God they are also happy.

The second act with its aimlessly milling crowd is a bit twee, as the chorus nod and smile to each other and do little else.  More could be made of Parpignol the toymaker’s brief appearance.  He is included to represent something beyond the picturesque.  Director Ellen Kent needs to decide what that is.  That said, the main players continue to be superb, with the addition of Ecaterina Danu’s Musetta, pretty in pink and having all the best tunes.  There is love, life, death, and even snow.  Although you might know what’s coming (you don’t need to be psychic to guess) it’s a moving finale, dramatically presented by a strong cast.

Above all, Puccini’s score is the star and here it is very well served by the singers and conductor Nicolae Dohotaru.   Delightful on the ear and pleasant on the eye, this Boheme reminds us there is humanity in even the lowliest, most impoverished people – something that certain sectors of our society need to realise.