There is a gentle breeze, with only the slightest chill, as the warm sun sets whilst Puccini's "Vogliatemi bene" hits with full force those enjoying one of Opera Holland Park's new productions. This one is, of course, Madama Butterfly, and after a lackluster opening to the season, OHP has come back strongly, reclaiming its position as one of London's most innovative and emotionally compelling opera companies. Puccini's tale is told through the traditional designs of Neil Irish and the expert direction of Paul Higgins, both of whom have collaborated well enough to produce a cohesive and intelligent production with few, if any, holes. The stage is framed by shoji, or rather the shoji frame a small ledge on which the characters can walk but that connects via three bridges to an island where the majority of the action takes place (a variant of a thrust stage). The lighting by Richard Howell often serves to evoke scintillating atmospheres, and is at its best between the end of Act II and the start of Act III, where the waiting Butterfly is framed in a soft blue hue.
The Butterfly of Anne Sophie Duprels is a resoundingly three-dimensional woman; one senses (and hears) her development as the opera progresses. Each phrase she spins is a long line of breathtaking emotion and commitment. It's rare to hear a soprano who can do as much vocally with the notoriously difficult role and still be dramatically convincing not only as a young, naïve girl but also as a strong woman. Duprels is that singer. The director deserves kudos as well for keeping her off-stage during her entrance; it's really the only way to introduce a Butterfly.
Joseph Wolverton began with a tentative and pinched "Dovunque al mondo," but really let his voice go in the latter half of Act I and in Act III. Despite giving the voice more spin and air throughout the latter halves of his on-stage performance, one wished for more full throated singing more often. Wolverton has a bright and pingy voice, but is capable of at least giving the impression that he can sing fuller. He should.
David Stephenson was a commanding and solid Sharpless. He sang the role effortlessly and communicated something beyond the usual Sharpless-as-conscience stock dramatic presence. His chemistry with Duprels in Act II was excellent and his face as she brought out Sorrow was priceless. Stephenson was matched by the refreshingly light Suzuki of Patricia Orr, who sang the role very well but did not have as much presence as one would've have ideally liked.
The Goro of Robert Burt was commendably annoying (and better sung that most), whilst John Lofthouse's Yamadori was suitably fleeting, perfect for the role. Barnaby Rea's Bonze was something incredible and distinctly memorable for such a small appearance; this is a singer whose career must be watched for his booming voice and clarion tone!
The singing was supported by the fantastic control of Manilo Benzi, who evoked a musical palette seldom heard in such an oft-repeated opera. The fluidity with which he led the orchestra and accompanied the singers suited modern tastes for Puccini perfectly; it was absolutely a performance to remember. The occasional cries of the peacock that roams Holland Park was also a very nice touch, even if unintentional.
This is no ordinary production of Butterfly, despite its traditional garb. It is a must see for the exceptionally high level of artistry from all involved and, if London's aberrant weather holds, for the experience of a lifetime.By Michael Migliore
Photos: Fritz Curzon