REVIEW: Madam Butterfly – Grand Opera of Belarus, Pavilion Theatre, Worthing

A night at the opera? In Worthing? Is this something we can look forward to more often?

It’s not our staple diet here. Brighton has it at the Theatre Royal and eight miles further on there is the world operatic stage of Glyndebourne, just outside Lewes.

As February neared is chilly end, however, more than 580 people thought a night out at Madam Butterfly was a good idea. They more or less filled Worthing’s Pavilion Theatre and sowed the seeds for future thought.

The Grand Opera of Belarus are taking Madam Butterfly and La Boheme on a 2½-month British Tour of provincial towns, the previous night Hastings. Box-office Puccini, the Italian successor to Verdi, who also gave the world Manon Lescaut, Tosca and Turandot. From Turandot came Nessun Dorma, the tenor aria, delivered by Luciano Pavarotti that now more than 12 years ago turned on a British football World Cup TV audience to Italian melodramatic classical singing.

Last year, Worthing began receiving live streamed opera from Covent Garden on the new digital cinema screen at The Ritz. Madam Butterfly comes up for the first time next month. So the Belarussians beat them to it, bringing also their live Symphonic Orchestra of the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre.

Note the word Bolshoi. In Russian it means ‘big’. The name is bestowed as an honorary title on only three Russian Theatres, one in St Petersburg, one in Moscow (the Bolshoi Ballet’s home) and this one in the Belarussian city of Minsk—a name known to English soccer through its Dynamo club.

Lots of ingredients, then, to excite curiosity and enthusiasm for that night out in Worthing.

More and more people filed in through the Pavilion Theatre doors on this Saturdayday evening. There were couples, there were families, there were clusters of keen women who’d left their male partners at home. Some were people known to me, but who I’d never seen before at a classical concert, let alone in an opera house.

Why? Did everybody know Butterfly’s tragic story? Were they ardent fans of the very singers about to perform? Had anyone even heard of these singers, or come to that the opera company, before? Probably not, almost certainly not, and again probably not. Those seem the inescapable answers. Then why?

Why not? Saturday night TV talent shows have increased our taste for listening to solo singing — and, it seems, anybody’s singing, people we’ve never heard of. Italians have always flocked to opera houses like we English pottered off, weekly, to Conservative or Working Men’s Clubs. In latter decades, we’ve gone to pubs and social clubs for it. Why? To hear singing. Pop songs. And an operatic aria is just a pop song, or a musical show number, in different sophisticated clothes.

And they don’t come much more pop than when Butterfly, her yankee naval husband having slipped back off to sea, thence (unknown to Butterfly) back to marry an American wife, sings One Fine Day. She fervently believes he’ll return to her and he’ll sail back into Nagasaki harbour. Opera houses can be expected to react when it’s sung at the pivotal point in the drama. They’ve waited for it. It’s the climax of Butterfly’s hoping. They’ll applaud, they’ll probably cheer, they might even roar.

Worthing stayed silent. No one clapped. Applause came forth only twice all evening: when the curtain fell for the interval and then at the end. Worthing was as in a classroom, learning, absorbing — enjoying, yes, but unfamiliar with the emotions they will have felt, or moreover, whether or when to express them. The singers were unknown here, the orchestra, albeit on the 22nd night of the tour, not up to the international class of Worthing Symphony Orchestra. But the night at the opera nevertheless impressed and encouraged Worthing. There will now be a thirst for more.

Three cheers to the Worthing Theatres management for booking the Belarussians: they now have to decide seriously on how possible to improve Worthing’s operatic experience.

Over recent decades, operas on tour have visited Worthing in various forms. I have seen Fidelio, Tosca and The Marriage of Figaro at the Pavilion and The Magic Flute at The Connaught Theatre. I have no doubt that the better experience can be created at The Connaught. It’s more compact. There are fewer disadvantaged seats. It’s a genuine theatre instead of a ballroom with a theatrical stage. It has the intimacy that connects the audience more immediately and thoroughly with the performers. There are even two boxes.

From the financial point of view, selling side balcony seats at the Pavilion may be the equivalent of ‘restricted view’ cheapies at Covent Garden but they are just as unfair and more expensive. Remove them from the Pavilion seating sales and its capacity is only slightly greater than that of The Connaught. Besides, once news spreads and the audience for Opera in Worthing grows, the visiting company at the Connaught can make it a two-night stand.

Full marks to the Grand Opera of Belarus. They came, they did not conquer, but they opened eyes, ears, and hearts. We should be grateful for the expense to which they went to do this.

Richard Amey