Madama Butterfly in Kiev

Attending recently two performances of Madama Butterfly in countries of the former Soviet Union has made me reflect on how this opera has been, and can be, presented. The production in Vilnius, seen in January 2017 was not homegrown but an import of Minghella’s famous ENO staging. As I wrote in my review (, it provided “an object lesson in being faithful to the character of a work while avoiding clichés”: the poignancy of the piece resulted from “representing” the Japanese setting by stylisation rather than attempting to portray it realistically.

The current production at Kiev, by the late Irina Molostova, dates from 1995 and in sharp contrast to the Vilnius presentation, is very traditional in style. It concentrates on the tragedy of delusional love, by creating “authentic” Japanese decors, characters and movements, rather than bringing out the subtexts of the drama: colonialist arrogance and male exploitation. Well and good, if the authenticity succeeds but here there were several unconvincing aspects including an uncomfortably attired and awkwardly moving male chorus (the women were much better) and a hulking “Ukrainian” Yamadori. Most importantly, Cio-Cio-San herself engaged in exotic, but distracting, hand and arm gestures unlike those of any Japanese young woman I have seen in films and elsewhere.

A pity because, in other respects, Liliya Grevtsova in the title role was superb. Scaling down her soprano to reflect the vulnerability of an innocent girl, then singing out with full, bright tone to express idealistic love and hope, and finally darkening the vocal line as disillusionment takes over, she musically communicated every facet of Cio-Cio-San and her predicament; in relation to all this her physical demeanour was superfluous.  Valentyn Dytiuk, as Pinkerton, did not of course have the same problem of characterisation. Strong in appearance (if insufficiently callous) and vocally, with alluring high notes, he made a powerful impression; obviously and justifiably, he is an audience favourite. While Alexander Boyko’s Sharpless was under-sung and too weak in profile, Angelina Shuachka deployed her rich mezzo to great effect as an understanding and devoted Suzuki. In the pit, Oleg Ryabov injected passion, but also subtle orchestral colours and phrasing, into his reading of the score.

An evening which was musically strong enough to compensate for a flawed attempt at an over-literal dramatic presentation.