A Butterfly in Blunderland

Opera & Ballet International
at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland, England
8 March 2000.

Having just enjoyed a very creditable production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, staged by Opera North at Newcastle's Theatre Royal a fortnight ago, it was, I suppose, inevitable that I should make comparisons. On that occasion the voice of Rosalind Sutherland (soprano) was so powerful it had to be kept on a leash. And for one or two fleeting moments in the opening scene of this performance by Opera and Ballet International it seemed as though I was perhaps in for another treat. But such optimism proved to be misplaced and extremely short-lived.

As the curtain opened to reveal the Japanese house which Pinkerton was about to lease for 999 years (give or take a millennium) I was suitably impressed. The wooden house was raised off the stage and had a set of wooden steps leading down to a Japanese garden, complete with wooden trellises bedecked with flowers. The wooden house had wooden doors which, it soon became painfully apparent, did not so much 'slide and glide', as described in the libretto, but rather 'scrape and grind.' There was certainly a lot of wood on that stage and more was to come as the cast made their appearances.

The 37-piece orchestra was conducted by a Radovan Karadic look-alike and, indeed, he launched into the music like a man on the run, leaving a trail of breathless singers in his wake as they struggled in vain to keep pace with him. I thought at first that he must have had a plane to catch, but no. The following evening he was still in Sunderland attempting to get into the Guinness Book of Records by racing us through La Traviata just ahead of the sonic boom.

As the oriental action began, I was distracted by a rustling sound and looked around to try and see who it was that was struggling to open a packet of M & M's. After a brief moment of confusion I realised that the sound was of running water and it was coming from the stage, where two water ornaments adorned the Japanese garden. Now, attention to artistic detail is to be applauded, but I remain unconvinced of the wisdom of having such additional sound-effects during what is primarily an aural experience. The trickling continued throughout the entire performance and had the audience standing up and sitting down like a confused church congregation, as a succession of weak bladders made their hurried "excuse-me's" in search of much needed relief!

With some difficulty I focused my attention on Pinkerton. Now this Pinkerton was not the tallest of tenors. Resplendent in his naval officer's all-white uniform, he had decided to put the finishing touches to his costume with a pair of 1970's high-fashion white leather boots, complete with two-inch Cuban heels. The effect of this detail was to transform his persona into a character that would have been more at home in a production of Saturday Night Fever than M. Butterfly - an impression which was not dispelled when he opened his mouth to sing.

But, credit where credit's due: when Cio Cio San made her entrance, we were treated to as fine a soprano as any I've heard in touring opera companies. Her voice floated sweetly above the harmonies of the chorus, seemingly unaffected by the disorderly hustle and bustle of the entourage as they fought their way through the inadequate space between the house and the water ornaments, and drew a warm round of applause from the audience. Sadly though, the audience felt inclined to applaud almost every time the orchestra played a cadenza.

Nonetheless, hers was a good voice, marred only by a tendency to overdo the diction and roll her R's like the r-r-r-r-r-r-rattle of a kalashnikov. Still, in this company she stood out like a flower in a midden.

The male members (sic) of the chorus are worthy of mention. These lanky dudes shambled about the stage in their identical black wigs, looking no more Japanese than Michael Jordan. And the 'dramatic' entrance of the dreaded Bonze was about as frightening as an episode of Kojak. [It would appear, from my choice of metaphor, that this performance, rather than transporting me to turn-of-the-century Japan, had me caught in a 1970's time warp. That being the case, the most appropriate comment I can make is 'Beam me up, Scottie!']

To say that this was amateurish would be an insult to your local amateur operatic society. This was on a par with a school play. Five out of ten for effort. Must do better.

And, like the audience at a school play, we found ourselves wanting them to do well, willing them to get through unscathed. Such was the cringe factor. But the worst was yet to come. It began when Suzuki entered carrying some props and dropped the telescope. It clattered to the wooden floor, bounced loudly down the wooden steps and rolled noisily under the house where it remained conspicuously out of reach.

"Uh-oh!" By this point, my sympathy for the cast was evaporating and I have to admit to a delicious, if wicked anticipation of the scene where Goro looks through the telescope and announces the arrival of Pinkerton's ship. How would he cope with that? When the moment came, I was on the edge of my seat. Goro moved stage-front, looked out over the audience, raised his hands to eye-level and, for one side-splitting moment I thought he was going to pretend he had a telescope. But, in a flash of inspired improvisation, he put one hand to his brow, as if shielding his eyes, and with the other he pointed to the back of the theatre as he made his announcement. Brilliant! Ten out of ten for initiative. Eleven out of ten for entertainment value.

I was beginning to think that this performance could give Fawlty Towers a run for its money in the comedy stakes but what happened next was in a league of its own.

Now, it might have been the effect of the water noises on her bladder, or maybe she was gasping for a cigarette, or perhaps she just fancied a pint of lukewarm English beer in the pub next door - whatever the reason, the young woman who was operating the supertitles seized upon the opportunity afforded by Butterfly's vigil to take a break from her duties, desert her post and absent herself from the auditorium.

I have to say that I was unaware that she had gone AWOL as the action recommenced on stage. But the mutterings of the audience quickly alerted me to the fact that something was wrong. As the dialogue progressed, the screen above the stage remained stubbornly blank. The opera was proceeding apace. The drama was unfolding. The muttering was growing louder. Then, suddenly, it melted into laughter. Eyes right. Supertitle Girl was running, yes running, down the side aisle to breathlessly resume her post. The audience chuckled. She hit the button.

"I will raise him as my own child", sang Mrs. Pinkerton in Italian.

"Dawn has broken", said the supertitles.

The audience laughed again. The screen went blank once more. The audience laughed louder. Forget what was happening on the stage. All eyes were on Supertitle Girl, as she flicked frantically through the pages of her script, trying to find the right place. When she did she proceeded to reduce us to tears of laughter. The screen was like a lightening storm, flashing on and off as she raced through every one of the lines she'd missed, in a desperate game of 'catch-up.' The audience roared. I felt genuinely sorry for the performers on stage. Unaware of the fiasco out front, they must have been bewildered. The operatic drama was reaching its climax. They were trying to deliver some of the most poignant lines and touching scenes in the whole story - and the audience were laughing fit to bust.

It must have been just such a night at the opera which inspired the Marx Brothers.

Add to these shenanigans the fact that the orchestra was out of tune, the brass section was way too loud (when they played forte, it really did sound more like fifty) and the acting was…….

Well, I was reminded of the time when my youngest daughter accidentally swallowed a penny and I spent the best part of a week doing what this opera company was doing - going through the motions.

Yet, for all that, the packed house applauded loudly at the final curtain. And I'm almost convinced that, when Pinkerton took his bow, their booing was for his part in the destruction of Cio Cio San rather than his part in this destruction of Puccini's masterpiece. I can only conclude that Sunderland desperately needs more opera.

This opera company goes under the nom de guerre of "Opera and Ballet International". They are in fact the Chisinau National Opera, Chisinau being the capital of the Moldavian SSR. They will be returning to Sunderland in September to engage in further skirmishes with Puccini (Tosca) and to wage all-out war on Verdi (Aida). It is to be hoped that they will spend the interim constructively. How about - REHEARSING?

Oh, and for the conductor, I can recommend a dodgy back-street 'Quack' who will prescribe a little something soporific to slow him down a bit. That is, if he hasn't been arrested by the UN War Crimes Commission by then. I'm afraid I can't tell you the names of any of the cast because, as I left the theatre, a freak gust of wind whipped my programme from my hand, crumpled it viciously into a ball and deposited it in the nearest waste bin.

Me, I'm off to book a foreign holiday. I hear that Tierra Del Fuego can be quite habitable in September.

'God, give me strength,' sang Madama Butterfly - my sentiments exactly!

Literary content:
Copyright:  © 2000 Ciaran McKeown

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