From a door at the rear of the performance space a figure emerges – tall, proud, disturbing. A dream image; an archetype of Noh theatre – a warrior with a silver mask shining in the blue stage lights, smoke curling around his feet. His precise, staccato movements dominate the stage, accompanied by a crash of cymbals. Entrance, take two: the figure retreats, and through the door into the auditorium, a man in a black jacket and loose ‘oriental’ trousers enters carrying a suitcase, looking eager but nervous. He takes a seat on a lattice-backed velvet chair, and waits…
Both of these characters – and indeed all the characters in this elegant new music-theatre production, described as a ‘one-man opera in two acts’ – are played with abundant ease and expertise by Ignacio Jarquin, a highly talented physical theatre performer who is also a lauded opera singer. In Madam Butterfly Returns, he has created a thoughtful and moving ‘sequel’ to Puccini’s much-loved opera. This, you may remember, gives us the story of the love affair between American naval officer BF Pinkerton and the beautiful 15-year-old girl known as Butterfly. Their brief tryst results in the birth of a son, and the opera ends tragically with her suicide, using her father’s hara-kiri dagger, after she is ordered to hand over her son to Pinkerton and his new American wife.
In Madam Butterfly Returns, we meet Butterfly’s ‘half-caste’ son Tomisaburo, 30 years after the end of the opera. He was never taken to America by Pinkerton, we learn, but raised by his mother’s old nursemaid Suzuki. He has now left Nagasaki for Atlanta, Georgia where the father he has never known, but often longed to know, is governor. It is a reversing out of the East-meets-West motif of the original story – now, it is American life that is exotic, other, as seen through the eyes of our protagonist.
Tomisaburo has plenty of time to think about things as he whiles away his days waiting in the lobby of Pinkerton’s office, hoping for an audience. He reflects on what has brought him to this point: reliving his parents’ meeting and love affair; mourning his doubly-bereaved childhood, as his mother dies and his father doesn’t want him; and pondering on the meaning of recurring dark dreams. He wonders about the behaviour of the kindly American family he is lodging with. The daughter of the house seems to be allowed a lot of liberty, he notes.
All this is enacted using an extraordinary array of physical and visual theatre techniques. Butterfly herself – memory or ghost, who knows? – comes to life most beautifully as the black jacket is reversed out to reveal a beautiful rose red and gold lining, and Jarquin’s movements become gracefully feminine as he raises what now look like kimono-dressed arms, unfurls a fan, and bows. In an atom, he is then transformed into the wizened old nurse Suzuki, who he begs for stories of his life. A number of traditional Japanese screens become the site for elegant scenes of shadow theatre, as we relive the courtship of Butterfly by Pinkerton, and the consummation of their love; or then, for the arguments between Pinkerton and his American wife. The suitcase is opened to reveal a Dogugaeshi inspired toy theatre (beautifully designed by Philip Sugg and Amanda Davidson), another medium to play out the endlessly fascinating story of Butterfly and Pinkerton’s love .
And the music! Madam Butterfly Returns is composed by Michael Finnissy, with libretto / book by Andrew G Marshall. It is a contemporary work that makes musical reference both to traditional Japanese forms, and also (here and there) to Puccini’s opera. Ignacio Jarquin sings beautifully, accompanied by a live quartet of four female musicians, two on violoncello (replacing the sound of the samisen in traditional Japanese music), a flautist and a percussionist, who deliver the complex score with skill and sensitivity. The production is not only performed by, but also directed by Ignacio Jarquin, with Anna-Helena McLean (of Moon Fool fame) as associate director. The team also includes choreographer Akiko Ono advising on the Japanese movement work; a simple but elegant set and costume design by Satoshi Date; and an effective lighting designer by Martin Chick.
This is a production that feels rather cramped – both literally and metaphorically – by this small pub theatre space. It deserves something bigger and better. All have worked hard to fit it into the setting, but it feels like it needs space to breathe.
A really engaging and beautifully performed piece of contemporary music theatre – let’s hope it has the chance to grow.