Glyndebourne's first ever staging of Puccini's Madama Butterfly comes to Norwich
PUBLISHED: 08:27 22 November 2016 | UPDATED: 08:27 22 November 2016
© Clive Barda 2016
Glyndebourne's latest visit to Norwich includes several first including the company's first ever production of Madama Butterfly. SIMON PARKIN finds out more from its debut director Annilese Miskimmon.
Now in its 48th year, Glyndebourne on Tour is always a highly anticipated date in the calendar for opera lovers and their latest visit to the Norwich Theatre Royal includes the company’s first ever production of Madama Butterfly.
Derived from a true story of a Japanese geisha married and abandoned by an American sailor, Puccini’s popular masterwork unfolds as a disastrous clash of East and West.
Puccini’s use of authentic Japanese scales and folk melodies gives the music of this audience favourite an irresistibly exotic flavour. Yet Madama Butterfly is Italian opera at its melodious and moving best, featuring such beloved numbers as the well-known ‘Flower Duet’, ‘Humming Chorus’, and the heart-rending aria ‘ Un bel dì, vedremo’.
It comes as quite a surprise that Glyndebourne has never tackled the work before and this first-ever production, which comes to Norwich as part of its premiere tour, has been entrusted to director Annilese Miskimmon.
“It’s a real privilege to be asked to do it,” says the Belfast born director, for whom this is a Glyndebourne directorial debut, though she first worked for Glyndebourne in 1999 as assistant director on Manon Lescaut, later becoming consultant associate director at the company from 2003 to 2005.
“I’m not sure why it has taken then so long to do Madama Butterfly, but I think because they are so good at so many things they had such a success with their baroque work, their Benjamin Britten, their Mozart, it has perhaps taken them some time to think why is right to do Madama Butterfly. This seems to be the time right and it is fabulous that it is going out on tour first.”
This was not the first time that Annilese, who has recently been appointed as opera director of Den Norske Opera and Ballet in Norway, had been approached to take on Puccini’s opera, but the chance to return to Glyndebourne proved too appealing to turn down.
“I had been asked to do it in other places before but I was just really looking to do it somewhere where the quality of work, not only in terms of singers and quality of costume and sets, would be able to show the piece at its best. So Glyndebourne for me really is the perfect place to do it. I’m very glad that I waited.
The internationally renowned East Sussex-based company first floated the idea of what a Glyndebourne production of this popular work should look like.
“Before it was a serious offer, they said to me what do you think about Madama Butterfly and I told them a bit about how I saw the piece,” says Annilese. “I worked at Glyndebourne for a long time in my twenties, so I know it very well, and that meant that I was able to tell them what I thought a Glyndebourne Madama Butterfly should be.”
The title character of Madama Butterfly — a young Japanese geisha, Cio-Cio San, who clings to the belief that her arrangement with a visiting American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton, is a loving and permanent marriage — is one of the defining roles in opera.
The opera delves deep into how the ill-fated Cio-Cio San falls prey to false and dangerous stereotypes of one another’s cultures in a story that triggers issues about cultural and sexual imperialism.
This Glyndebourne first is both a traditional take on the story and an updating to the 1950s.
“I’ve been working with some fabulous designers but it still has all the beauty of the Japanese context,” explains Annilese about how she approached the production. “There are some fabulous kimonos, so in one way it is very traditional, but we’ve also made some decisions about when it is set. It is updated slightly to the 1950s because at that time a lot of American servicemen were marrying aboard and some of those women were going back too the United States. This was before the immigration act so it was possible for them to do so.
“What we felt was important was in the context of the time, Madama Butterfly is really manipulated into thinking that she has a real future with this man. That it is a real wedding and that she will be going back to America with him. Of course, we, as an audience, know that’s not the case right from the moment when Pinkerton says that the marriage contract isn’t worth the paper it is written on.
“It is easy to forget that this story was happening to a lot of women, but is also easy to forget that this is a very romantic story before it all goes wrong and ends tragically. The idea therefore is that it has all the things of a traditional production that people love, but with a context that makes us really understand the story.”
The production is filled with firsts. Not only is it Glyndebourne’s first Madama Butterfly and Annilese’s directorial debut, it is also the first UK performances of South Korean soprano Karah Son, who takes the lead role, and Italian tenor Matteo Lippi as Pinkerton. Claudia Huckle, who performed the title role in The Rape of Lucretia in 2013, returns as Suzuki.
“Karah Son is fabulous and we’ve also got a amazing Pinkerton, the Italian Matteo Lippi, and for both of them its their debuts in the UK. It’s been a complete joy working with them. They are both incredible and are really not to be missed,” enthuses Annilese.
The Glyndebourne Norwich residence this year not only includes Madama Butterfly, which is being performed on November 23 and 26, but also another beloved opera in Mozart’s Don Giovanni on November 22 and 25.
Jonathan Kent’s sleek and suspenseful production, last seen in Norwich in 2010, captures the swing between comedy and tragedy to startling effect amid Mozart’s irresistible music, with its famous highlights ranging from Don Giovanni’s sparkling Champagne aria to the seductive duet ‘La ci darem la mano’.
Australian baritone Duncan Rock takes the title role with British tenor Anthony Gregory as Don Ottavio. Romanian soprano Ana Maria Labin performs the role of Donna Anna and Polish soprano Magdalena Molendowska is Donna Elvira.
The tour’s third production is something different. Paul Rissmann’s Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain, being staged on November 24, offers an enlightening introduction to opera.
The event has been created to provide a behind-the-scenes exploration of what goes into putting an opera on stage, while at the same time demystifying opera itself with an inspirational look at Don Giovanni, culminating in an extended excerpt from Act II.
Paul Rissman, music presenter who has hosted Classics Unwrapped and a critically acclaimed series of music discovery concerts for adults called Naked Classics, said: “It is a completely unique operatic experience that explores how the world of classical music combines with all the magic of theatre for a special performance that not only features some of the highlights of Mozart’s Don Giovanni but also uncovers some of the secrets of the opera.”
This special event is part of Glyndebourne’s mission to encourage more people to experience opera. Set amid the East Sussex countryside, Glyndebourne’s base has long been very different to the stuffy image of London’s opera houses.
“It is very different and does have a very special atmosphere,” says Annilese Miskimmon. “It has a kind of magic. When you’re on your lunch break and can go and see the sheep and sit in the countryside, it is very different to being in London. Everything here is really just about concentrating on making the best possible work.
“It feels like home even though I haven’t worked here for 11 or 12 years. I was very lucky because this is really the perfect place to see how opera works because the standards are so high and the people are so generous professionally. It is an incredible place to spend time.
“Of course, a lot of things have changed, a lot of things are even better about the work here. It has been a real pleasure to work with old colleagues again and has been very exciting.”
Madama Butterfly marks a return to the UK for Annilese after a spell as director of the Danish National Opera and ahead of taking up her new role in Norway.
“I’ve always had quite an international career even when I was based in the UK full time, I would still go abroad to do shows on short term contracts,” she says of this nomadic creative life. “It was seamless to move to Scandinavian, quite interesting too. We have so much in common and quite there are significant cultural differences about how people work together and how the whole arts scene out there is run. However opera as a whole is so international anyway.”
That doesn’t mean tastes don’t vary however. “It is more diverse than you would think. For example, Denmark when I was working there, they were focussed on the Italian and German repertoire, mostly Wagner. Norway has a less mature opera tradition. As a result they have a more broad palate of interest. There are always nuances that you have to take into account when you move to run a new opera company.”
• Glyndebourne on Tour, Norwich Theatre Royal, November 22-26, 7.15pm, £54-£7, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk
• More details at: www.glyndebourne.com