When Cio-Cio-San, also known as Butterfly, took her life the gory way at the end of G. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, her heartbreaking story seemed to have finished for good. However, performer Ignacio Jarquin proposes, with music by Michael Finnissy and book by Andrew G. Marshall, a continuation of the original story set thirty years after Butterfly’s demise, when her son tries to be granted an audience with his father. Of course this plays along with the ending of the opera, where we do not see Pinkerton actually taking the boy away, and giving us the impression that the Lieutenant’s wife was a mean human being that did not honour her words to the desperate Butterfly.
The idea in itself is interesting, and, as Tomisaburo waits for days for his father to receive him, offers a number of dramatic possibilities that have not been exploited in this version. The performance in itself is presented as a one-man opera, an utterly pretentious label for a show that uses singing, but nowhere near operatic level. It mixes several techniques – storytelling, Japanese Noh and Kabuki, shadow theatre, singing – and maybe there lies the main problem: it is extremely difficult as an audience member to connect to the story in any way. This lack of emotional connection comes from not knowing exactly what we are seeing, as it seems like a group of genuinely good ideas put together without much thought. Ancient art forms as Noh and Kabuki – the former using masks, the latter make-up, although the differences between them are huge – are used here as dramatic devices, however it is only occasionally that they actually work. The refinement of the movement in Noh and Kabuki, its stylised way of expressing emotions, is absent here. Movement is executed hurriedly, and masks are used in sequences that are more of an aesthetic picture rather than part of the story.
Jarquin takes on the difficult task of telling this story and representing all the characters in it: from Butterfly to Pinkerton, he marks the changes in character through costume, position on stage and posture, more in a storytelling fashion rather than in a fully-acted show. As already mentioned, he attempts to tell the story using very different techniques that do not feel fulfilling separately. Music, on the other hand, was effective, if not evocative enough of the context of the story, and was superbly played by a four-piece ensemble.
I was surprised that this production felt insufficiently rehearsed; maybe because of the reduced space at the Landor movement felt constrained and the change of position of the screens felt slightly clumsy; there were even a couple of text mishaps. This continuation of one of the greatest operas of all time was utterly disappointing. The half-baked jumble of genres shows exactly how ‘less is more’ is a premise that should not be forgotten. Sadly a good idea, and several other good ideas along the way, is lost in a sea of naively used techniques that left the audience numb.
Madam Butterfly Returns is playing at the Landor Theatre until 22 November. For more information and tickets, see the Landor Theatre website.