Ian Waller attends his first opera and enjoys an amazing night of great music and real drama
Wow, the Welsh National Opera’s production of Madam Butterfly at Bristol Hippodrome was AMAZING! This was my first opera and I really knew so little about what to expect apart from a quick Wikipedia check-up for the plot and friends telling me this was a great one to start with as at least I’d recognise the music.
Still, I was a little nervous. After all, my images of opera always fell to Wagnerian images of static singers wearing Viking helmets and competing in the who can shatter most glasses competition, all in front of a very posh audience in DJs and ballgowns, trying to hide their yawns behind fans and opera glasses.
I’m very glad to say that this was nothing like the reality of my first opera.
As we took our seats in the stalls, just a few rows up from a full orchestra, it was just immediately evident that this was to be something special. It was just fantastic to watch the orchestra preparing, taking the lead of the first violin to make sure that they were all in tune and chatting about the performance to come. Around me, the barely half full Hippodrome was suddenly hushed as the orchestra stood and the conductor, Carlo Rizzi entered and took his position, immediately commanding the attention of the musicians.
And we were off. The sound from the orchestra was immediately entrancing, such power and beauty, such amazing skill and all taking place just a few rows away.
When the curtain came up, all of those stereotype images of the opera disappeared – here was a wonderfully modern and very clever set, based around an almost constantly revolving house, with the huge cast entering in perfectly choreographed fashion and the first of the main characters, Pinkerton, getting the performance underway.
The plot itself is, well, pretty terrible really. The American Pinkerton comes to Japan on business, buys himself a 15 year old bride – Madam Butterfly – marries her, then returns to America to leave Butterfly to raise the child he’s never met. Butterfly, meanwhile, cast out by her family, waits and hopes for Pinkerton to return, desperately believing that love will overcome. Sadly, however, the happy ending she so desires turns to predictable tragedy.
How the story plays out is just incredible. While the singing is all in Italian, fortunately there’s a small screen above the stage offering a translation to help us newbies keep to speed. Even without it, however, the power of the performances and the pure drama of the whole production was just incredible. Peter Auty as Pinkerton was great to watch, all swagger and showmanship, a real taste of the worst type of imperialistic entitlement. Then there was Joyce El-Khoury as Butterfly, wonderfully delicate and innocent, naive and vulnerable.
Both central performances were incredible. Their voices were faultless, powerful and aching with emotion, all particularly impressive from Auty whose whole performance included a fair amount of physicality. But then to focus on the two central characters would be an oversight. Across the cast, the singing was sublime – to witness such energy and skill really was an experience that is so worth seeing.
Combine these performances with the innovative set and the incredible orchestra, and I became an overnight opera convert.
So next time the opera comes to the Bristol Hippodrome, go on, give it a go. Forget your preconceptions and be ready for an evening of real drama and emotion. And take a look around when you arrive – there’s a good chance I’ll be there too!
Find out more about upcoming productions at the Bristol Hippodrome here
Find out more about the Welsh National Opera here