Duncan Rock as Don Giovanni and Louise Alder as Zerlina – photo supplied

Norwich Theatre Royal has enjoyed a long period of stability and success which has made it the envy of many provincial theatres who struggle to survive, let alone thrive. A part of this success must be due to the leadership of soon-to-depart Chief Executive Peter Wilson and the bonus for local audiences is that we have the chance to enjoy some of the finest touring companies in Britain today.

At the top of any list for excellence and musical standards is the Glyndebourne Touring opera company, who are leaving their Sussex home for just five regional venues for their 2016 tour. They are bringing us two operas, Don Giovanni and Madame Butterfly.

While Mozart’s 1788 Don Giovanni had been performed some 453 times by Glyndebourne before the start of this tour Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a new venture for the company. The two works contrast sharply with each other, a contrast highlighted by the very different staging of each opera by the company.

Don Giovanni is an epic tale of male misbehaviour, sex, violence and revenge presented on one of the most dramatic sets that I have ever seen squeezed onto the capacious Norwich stage. The revolving set becomes more dangerous as the action becomes more threatening, with super-scale representations of a Seville Palazzo folding in and out of the relentless movement of the principals.

Glyndebourne give us eight charismatic and competent performers in the leading roles with the three female characters being particularly strong in contrast to the opera theme of male indulgence and exploitation. Ana Maria Labin as the wronged Donna Anna and Magdalena Molendowska as the spurned bride Donna Elvira bring both grace and force to their separate but shared pursuits of justice from the Don, while Louise Alder has enormous fun adding a coquettish mischief to the complex role of the newly-married but fickle Zerlina, whom Don Giovanni is determined to ravage.

The most central relationship of this work is between Don Giovanni (Duncan Rock), a wealthy leisured lush who relentlessly pursues fresh female conquests, and his long suffering and loyal servant Leporello (Brandon Cedel) who romp together through adventures and mishaps apparently heedless of their fate. Opera sometimes leaves little room for convincing character acting, but we can engage with these two with their very different styles and demeanours from their first moments on stage. Their differences allow the audience the delight of a secret shared as they swap clothes and roles at one point to further confound and confuse their aggrieved pursuers. The deception ends in a suitably wonderful bad way.

Don Giovanni is the rock and roll superstar of his time, devil-may-care live fast and die young in his outlook and readiness to party at any time. Over three hours in a theatre seat can be a testing experience, but this superb Don Giovanni will have you alert and joyous for every second of the performance, with a truly scary level of danger and suspense as the inevitable climax comes.

Madame Butterfly allows the Glyndebourne orchestra and set designers to give us a remarkable contrast to the rampant Don, with a masterclass of Japanese manners and movement, subtle and gentle gestures and burning passions repressed into minimal exhibition. The set starts as a marriage broker’s office, but can also be an estate agent’s or Consul’s office or even the scene for a shy seduction.

Matteo Lippi as Pinkerton and Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San. Photographer Clive Barda

Matteo Lippi as Pinkerton and Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San. Photographer Clive Barda

Karah Son is a powerful and incomparable Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) who dominates this accomplished and elegant production. A newly impoverished 15 year old who becomes a Geisha to survive she turns to marriage broker Goro (Alun Rhys-Jenkins) to find a bridegroom from a visiting US Navy ship, and alights upon a soon besotted Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (Matteo Lippy) who sweeps her away to his Nagasaki love nest before abandoning her when his ship sails home. The devoted Butterfly renounces her family and religion in favour of her new husband and all things American and waits for three long years for his return, faithful to her belief in his loyalty to the end. She has a son after he leaves who she names Sorrow, his blue eyes a testament to his American father, but she is left pining and destitute with only her long suffering maid Suzuki (Claudia Huckle) to help her. Suzuki secretly keeps her traditional faith, but fears that Pinkerton will never return. Eventually Pinkerton’s friend and US Consul Sharpless (Francesco Verna) brings a letter from Pinkerton signalling her abandonment.

Cio Cio San hopes that knowing about his son will soften Pinkerton’s heart, but he finally returns with his new American wife to take his son back to the US, and when she realises this she determines to seal her own fate as Pinkerton comes to collect his son.

Madame Butterfly is musically complex yet familiar, as Puccini gave the opera powerful themes which have passed into all our lives. Sung in Italian with clear Japanese and American undertones it was an ambitious creation, but the large Glyndebourne orchestra reminds us just how perfect this score is.

The staging is ambitious and highlights the emotional trauma for Butterfly, with a spellbinding and long held image at the end of Act Two as the mother and son gaze into a fading sunset. Sadly the Norwich audience did not seem fully respectful of the mood as some chattered away over the linking theme between Acts 2 and 3 while the curtain descended for a scene change.

A strong and cohesive cast make the complexities of this production seem graceful and easy, but the night belongs to Karah Son and her defining performance of Butterfly, who comes to the stage as a fifteen year old girl but has a voice to rival the most famous of sopranos. She has a presence that draws close attention throughout her time on stage, yet leaves us in no doubt that Butterfly is a shy yet passionate person pushed too early into womanhood.
Constant exposure to carefully edited performances on TV and film give us high expectations for perfect performances on the stage. With these two Glyndebourne ensembles nobody can be disappointed by the quality of either stage opera in their brief visit to Norwich, but the startling contrast between the two productions makes this unmissable theatre.

©Julian Swainson


Glyndebourne Tour 2016, Don Giovanni: Behind The Curtain, November 24, 7.15pm. Tickets: £7-£20.
Don Giovanni, November 22 & 25, and Madama Butterfly, November 23 & 26, 7.15pm. Tickets £8-54. Tickets £8-54.
BOX OFFICE 01603 630000. Discounts for Friends, Under 18s and Groups, plus Saver Scheme available.