In traditional opera productions, Madam Butterfly’s friends don’t go by the names of Britney, Whitney or GaGa. Nor does Butterfly carry a fabulous designer handbag. Come to think of it, she doesn’t usually have male genitalia, either.
A new production, set among Bangkok Ladyboys, is the latest venture at London’s Little Opera House” in the King’s Head pub-theater. In this small space, fledgling directors and young singers can try out mad ideas, and see which ones work.
The “Ladyboy Butterfly” starts promisingly. Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production takes place in a chic 30th-floor Bangkok apartment. There’s a huge picture of Helmut Newton-style mannequins. An aura of sex and commodification hovers.
This is where airline pilot Pinkerton brings the 15-year- old kathoey Butterfly, a cute boy-girl who looks pert in all the right places. Whether he’s had the chop, we never find out. It doesn’t seem to worry Pinkerton.
With her great boob job, tight white dress and cute pumps, Butterfly seems naive though hardly innocent. Her ladyboy friends drink, giggle and flirt lasciviously with Pinkerton and his pal Sharpless.
Through Act 1, it’s a lot of fun. Of a triple-cast show, I saw Margaret Cooper, who was an impressive, petite-framed and vocally assured Butterfly. Mario Sofroniou (Pinkerton) offset his wooden acting with a pretty voice and secure upper register. The big love duet, accompanied by piano, viola and clarinet, had sweep and even grandeur.
Where’s the Baby?
If you know the story of Puccini’s “Madam Butterfly” you’re probably thinking “Hold on... doesn’t she have Pinkerton’s baby in Act 2?”
Right. That’s actually the least of the increasingly laughable implausibilities in the second part of the show, which is set three years after the first.
The child turns out to be Butterfly’s nephew, the son of her sister who died of AIDS. Why she thinks Pinkerton should care two hoots about this poor waif (portrayed on stage by a puppet, another misjudgement) is never made clear.
Butterfly believes Pinkerton will return to her, after three years without so much as a phone call or e-mail. Didn’t she get the hint? She’s meant to be innocent, not mentally defective, for heaven’s sake. And who paid the rent?
Her ideas about the nobility and moral beauty of Americans, which she expounds to Sharpless, stretch one’s patience too. Hasn’t she watched American TV in all her 18 years? And so on, and so on, until the car crash of tortuous motivations eventually skids to a halt.
You know what? I didn’t mind. If directors can’t screw up in a small studio space, where can they? How else will they learn? Mistakes are the best teaching tool.
English National Opera has a policy of employing inexperienced directors on its huge stage, and the results are usually as much fun as a trip to the abattoir. If the results might be iffy at the tiny King’s Head, at least it’s cheap and you can take your drinks in. Bravo to that. Rating: **.
“Madam Butterfly” is at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington, London, through Jan. 23. http://www.kingsheadtheatre.org or +44-844-477-1000.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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