Butterfly by the sea at the Minack Theatre

Antony CraigMon 25th July 2011
Opera by the sea: Madame Butterfly at the Minack theatre (photo: Antony Craig)Opera by the sea: Madame Butterfly at the Minack theatre (photo: Antony Craig)

Puccini’s melodrama in the open air on the Cornish coast

It is 55 years since I saw an opera by Inglis Gundry entitled The Logan Rock, which happened to include in its cast one Edith Coates, at an extraordinary open-air amphitheatre on a clifftop in south-west Cornwall. I can remember nothing about the opera or the performance (I was eight at the time) except for my fond recollection that, despite the fact that it rained, this was one of the most magical experiences of my childhood. The amazing venue was the Minack Theatre, Porthcurno, cut from the rockface very near to the eponymous Logan Rock, a massive piece of granite of some 80 tons and the subject of fierce local legend.
 
I finally returned to the Minack this week where, far from learning more about Cornish myth and mystery, the storyline concerned cynical underage grooming many thousands of miles away in Nagasaki. The amateur New Cornwall Opera company was playing Madame Butterfly to full houses of around 750 all week.
 
And again the experience was a magical one; as the sun set over the Channel I was transported to a place where, once more, the rain seemed to count for nothing.
 
For any amateur troupe to tackle Butterfly calls for no little bravery. Puccini’s melodrama is no Gilbert and Sullivan and the role of Cio-Cio San calls for a soprano of rare talent. So hats off to Cornish amateur Kate Wood for a powerful and moving portrayal, at times beautiful. Wood may be no Edith Coates, but she is a fine singer and overcame initial nerves to capture our hearts. Together with Simone Hellier, an empathetic and convincing Suzuki, she made us want to weep as she began her hopeless vigil awaiting the returning Pinkerton.
 
Puccini's American naval officer is no more than a smug little paedophile – and local optician Matt Eva portrays him as a pathetic weakling too – and Butterfly’s loyalty and constant love should stretch the credulity of a 21st-century audience, or at least make it angry. Morally, psychologically and vocally, she is the stronger partner. What she saw in this Pinkerton will remain a mystery. Made of sterner stuff was Mark Saberton’s memorable Sharpless. Saberton reveals himself as a fine rich baritone, in control of his scenes, and his was the vocal cement holding this production together.
 
Opera in the open presents particular accoustical and logistical challenges, of course, and the biggest here was always going to be finding adequate space – and position – for an orchestra. The inevitable compromises meant no more than 15 or 16 players could be accommodated and Puccini’s sweeping demands require more than that. Musical Director Rico Gerber pulled together what resources he had but, especially noticeable in the orchestral interludes, the sound was too thin.
 
But the entire team deserve plaudits for putting together a performance strong on atmospherics and taking full advantage of the incredible stage that the Minack is. When Cio-Cio San is looking out to sea, hoping and praying she will sight Pinkerton’s ship, she has the vast expanses of the darkening Channel across which to peer. With a set that made the most of the surroundings, glorious costumes and an enthusiastic chorus, New Cornwall Opera can be proud of its achievement in putting on an opera beyond the resources and capacity of many an amateur company and pulling it off with style and verve.
 
I have waited a long time to pay a return visit to the Minack and it was worth the wait. Next time can’t come soon enough.

Antony Craig

Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and visits and writes about opera around the world – he has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also sings in two choirs.

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