Review: Praise for Madame Butterfly in the pub

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It’s not often the best seat in an opera house is right at the back. The King’s Head Theatre isn’t your average opera house. The intimate space behind the Islington pub makes Paul Higgins’ adaptation of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly captivating.

The small theatre magnifies every moment by inviting the audience to scrutinise each smile and moment of pain on the actors’ faces. What is already an intimate account of love and betrayal, primarily set in the lovers’ living spaces, makes every audience member feel as much front-row spectators as intruders looking into a familial affair.

The English version of the originally Italian libretto was written especially for Higgins’ production by Amanda Holden, who has written librettos for Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of Don Giovanni and Olivier Award-winning The Silver Tassie.

Following the success of Higgins’ production of Cosí fan tutte at the King’s Head last spring, it is easy to see why the director chose to return to the modest location for his latest.

Performing in such a space, where no detail goes unnoticed, upped the pressure for the performers. Soprano Stephanie Edwards gracefully excels in her role as Madam Butterfly.

She grows from the 15-year-old bubblegum pink-clad young Butterfly, to a drained mother-of-one.

She earns the audience’s sympathy with her elegant yet desperate delivery

In the scene when she receives the pain-laden letter that her beloved Pinkerton, played by Arthur Swan, will not be returning to her, she manages to communicate the agony that every woman who has experienced heartbreak will know.

She earns the audience’s sympathy with her elegant yet desperate delivery of ‘Two Things I Could Do’, and carries it on her journey as a scorned woman. She moves from joy mixed with pain to rage and delusion, and ends in a deep sadness.

As the two-piece orchestra, made up of a pianist and cellist, continue to pull on on our heartstrings, mezzo-soprano Holly-Marie Bingham, stepping in for Sophie Goldrick as Kate Pinkerton, appears. She looks just as beautiful as in every scorned woman’s imagination. Her velvety voice is a perfect match to her glossy hair, glowing skin and tiny red handbag, making her stand out on the sombre stage.

Madam Butterfly - The Kings Head - Arthur Swan as Pinkerton and Stephanie Edwards as Butterfly - photo Christopher Tribble

A mood of melancholy is created by set and light designers Luke W. Robson and Nic Farman. The use of blue lights during Madam Butterfly’s final moment in her rendition of ‘Like a Little Fly’ pulls the audience into the hole of pain that poor Butterfly and her son Dolore occupy.

A woman sitting in the front row wipes away a tear from her eye when Butterfly goes backstage to kill herself with her father’s knife after reading the inscription: “Who cannot live with honor must die with honor.” She abandons a powerful scene, with her son left alone on stage in the sad, blue light.

The genuine agony in Jones’ face when sharing the news with Madam Butterfly makes you wonder why she did not fall for him instead.

The 19th century story comes into the present with Higgins use of modern-day gadgets, such as the iPhone that Pinkerton uses to take pictures of a 15-year-old Madam Butterfly, and the iPad on which he shows them off to Sharpless (David Jones).

In the whirlwind of drama, the two reliable characters come in the form of baritone Jones and mezzo-soprano Sarah Denbee, who plays Suzuki. Their charming performances as the gentle and principled supporting pair make the audience begin to depend on them to comfort and console, and add relief to the drama. The genuine agony in Jones’ face when sharing the news with Madam Butterfly makes you wonder why she did not fall for him instead.

This adaptation of what is designed to be a rather large production really came into its own at the King’s Head Theatre. The music, the set and the sensational performances took the audience into the show in a way that a larger opera house would not have permitted – something that everyone should experience.
Madam Butterfly is on at The King’s Head Theatre until 18 March