Feb 1 2013 Review by Barry Dix
OPERA lovers are spoilt for choice at The Theatre Royal in Windsor this week.
The grand old venue is playing host to not one but two high-quality productions, giving devotees with the time and cash an unprecedented chance to enjoy a double helping of sensational music.
There are three nights of Madam Butterfly and three of La Boheme, two of the most-loved operas and both the work of Giacomo Puccini.
But don't imagine these are low-budget versions, with minimal scenery, basic costumes and just a handful of musicians.
Grand Opera of Belarus has spared no expense in making sure the productions it is taking the length and breadth of the UK over the next couple of months are in keeping with its status as one of the world's leading touring companies.
There's a huge live orchestra, a squad of wonderful singers who alternate between roles on various nights, and an abundance of carefully-crafted scenery which the stage crew are somehow managing to transport and reassemble 25 times during the tour.
Windsor was the first port of call for this vast travelling operatic spectacle.
This reviewer was only able to attend one of the productions, Madam Butterfly, on Tuesday evening, but judging from the favourable comments in the bar, there were many among the near-capacity crowd who had enjoyed Monday's version of La Boheme so much that they wasted little time in booking to return 24 hours later.
For many it is their first taste of live opera, and the Belarusians certainly ensure that this initial introduction to the genre makes a big impact.
The story of Madam Butterfly with its heart-wrenching and emotion-draining outcome is one of the best known in opera but this glorious and passionate production has a freshness and vitality that invigorates the oft-told tale.
The company, part of the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre of Belarus, is one of only three in the former Soviet Union to have been granted the honorary title Bolshoi. Founded in 1933 it survived the traumas of the Second World War and the break up of the USSR and during the past 15 years has toured in more than 30 countries all over the world.
Its performers are among the most-admired operatic stars in their home country. Nina Scharubina is outstanding as the ever-loving, ever-trustful Cio-Cio San (Madam Butterfly), while there are equally-exhilarating performances from mezzo-soprano Marina Aksentsova as her maid servant Suzuki, and Vladimir Petrov in the role of the United States ambassador.
Eduard Martyniuk as the villain of the piece, Lieutenant Pinkerton, is also on top form but was visibly taken aback when he was on the receiving end of some gentle booing among the rapturous applause as the cast took their final bows. Hopefully someone swiftly informed poor Eduard that this pilloring of the baddies is a British pantomime tradition which a section of the audience decided to use on him!
By the way, among all the Belarusians is one little English lad, seven-year-old James Chalken from Iver Heath, a member of Windsor Youth Theatre, who has been given the honour of playing Madam Butterfly's young child in the Theatre Royal production.
Though his role is non-singing, he has a vital part in one of the pivotal and most symbolic scenes when Butterfly and Suzuki stand patiently looking out from the window across the twinkling lights of the town, to the harbour where Pinkerton's boat has docked. As the darkness grows greater and the time ticks by, the music rises and falls in relentless sadness and, despite any movement on stage or single sound of a voice, creates the most moving tableau you will see on any stage.
I'm sure La Boheme is as fine a production as this magnificent version of Madam Butterfly. Which will you choose?
La Boheme is at Windsor tonight (Wednesday January 30) and tomorrow (Thursday) while Madam Butterfly returns on Friday and Saturday. Contact the box office of 01753 85388 or www.theatreroyalwindsor. Please note the productions start at 7.30pm.