Intimacy, innovation and inspiration: Madam Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall

Giacomo Puccini’s Madam Butterfly is one of the most loved and regularly performed opera’s in the world; its exotic setting, tragic story and sumptuous music proving irresistible to audiences for over a hundred years.

Yet it was the creative approach to a well-worn classic achieved in this production that breathed new life into the work and delighted the audience of the Royal Albert Hall, a venue not traditionally designed for dramatic performances.

This is down to the bold in-the-round staging erected in the central stalls area of the famous building’s layout – usually reserved for seated or standing audience members facing the stage – which was artfully transformed into a Japanese water garden with walkways surrounding a central traditional Japanese home perched on stilts, the setting for the entire opera. This stunning design by David Roger and direction by David Freeman was first shown here in 1998, but was a complete surprise to me. I have visited the RAH countless times over the years for a huge variety of performances from the Proms to Eric Clapton to Harry Connick Jr., but this familiar space was totally re-invented in my eyes and I was caught up in the thrill of the production before a note had been played.

One of the advantages of this layout was that the performers were freed from the single direction of the audience that comes with a traditional stage. They roamed the boardwalks, through the house and around the edge of the water garden as they sang, adding a whole new dimension and fluidity to their movements and interactions and making the action seem more natural and dynamic. This was made practical by the subtle amplification from discreetly hidden microphones for each performer. This is unusual in opera – traditionally everything is entirely acoustic and sung out in one direction – but necessary here as otherwise the volume and clarity would be lost to any sections of the audience seated behind where each singer happened to be facing.

The result was that every member of the enthralled audience could perfectly hear the wonderful performances of leads Korean soprano Nam-Young Kim and tenor James Edwards, no matter where they stood, to whom they faced, or whether they were bowing deeply or curled on the floor. It also gave perfect line of sight to every part of the action no matter where one was seated, whether in the surrounding stalls or up in the Gods.

To solve the problem of how the singers could see the conductor – so important for direction and cues and usually placed right in their line of site between them at the audience – small monitors were placed around the first tier balcony so he could be viewed from all angles of the stage. As well as providing the necessary visual connection needed for the performers, it also brought the conductor out of the hidden depths of the orchestra pit and into view of the audience too, another advantage of this innovative approach.

Puccini’s ravishing score itself was sublime, brought to rich life with passion and zeal by the uniformly strong cast and played with sumptuous authority by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra led by musical director Oliver Gooch, who were situated on the traditional stage behind where the action lay.

My personal moment of magic occurred in the second act during the Humming Chorus. Butterfly puts her child to bed (adorably played by a blond-haired cherub that couldn’t have been more than four years-old) and waits up all through the night for her American husband to return. This famous piece (which heavily inspired the song Bring Him Home from Steven Sondheim’s Les Misérables) was performed by the orchestra and hidden choir so delicately, tenderly and movingly that, combined with the darkened stage and actors moving through the audience with Japanese lanterns, it hushed the hall into spellbound reverence.

Just when I think I know a work inside out and a venue like the back of my hand, a brilliant production like this that takes a fresh, bold approach comes along and re-writes the rules and makes it all seem new again. It just goes to show how exciting, engaging and vibrant the classical world can be, even when performing standard classics in traditional venues. There are always surprises to be found, go book yourself a ticket to a concert and see the delights in store.

See more from Classical Blogmaster, Sonny Williamson, on Twitter @SonnyWilliamson and Google+.