It might seem odd for Glyndebourne to begin its 2018 season with a popular opera in a production already seen on the Tour, although the choice was made clearer with the fact that it was celebrating the 60th birthday of one of the house’s most devoted benefactors, and Madama Butterfly is his favourite opera.
So had much changed since 2015 with this Annilese Miskimmon production, designed by Nicky Shaw? Not really, with the most significant consistent factor being that not one moment in the production gave rise to a single tear. Obviously it’s one of those ‘Let’s-strip-away-all-that-sentimentality’ types, and apart from the lack of sob factor, it works well, introduces many convincing details and features some outstanding vocal performances.
The undoubted glory of the evening was the orchestral playing by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Omar Meir Wellber: he has impressed us at Glyndebourne before, but with this showing he has established himself as everything one could wish for in a Puccini conductor; he gave the emotional, romantic moments enough room to breathe, shaped the tragic phrases with due gravity yet not too much portentousness, and obtained playing of real class from the orchestra.
In terms of the singing, the star of the evening was the Suzuki of Elizabeth DeShong, whose vivid characterization and magnetic phrasing engaged us in every one of her scenes – not that she hogged the limelight, far from it, but so convincing was her acting and so engrossing her singing that one saw this character in a new light. The ‘lady’ whom she served with such desperate loyalty was sung by Olga Busuioc with almost equal conviction; this production aims to show Cio-Cio-San as developing very quickly indeed from an ingénue to a determined woman who will not give in even to the most persistent of arguments, and this aspect of her character was well delineated.
In vocal terms, the voice is steely rather than lush, lending an edge to ‘Un bel dì’ and a clarity to her assumption of an ‘American’ persona. Her cad / knight in shining armour was sung with acceptable ardour by Joshua Guerrero, although it was difficult to warm to him – perhaps that’s the point. Michael Sumuel’s Sharpless was sympathetic if a little bland, and Carlo Bosi’s Goro was persuasively loathsome. As usual in this house, the Chorus was superb, whether playing cowed schoolgirls, outraged relatives or forming part of an exquisite ‘Humming Chorus.’
The ‘marriage bureau’ is entirely plausible, with the lines of girls being surveyed by ogling men who look as if they have been brought up with the adage that ‘the Yankee gets what he wants.’ What is less credible, is the dead branches which have long shed their blooms, so that when Butterfly, ecstatic at what she imagines is her ‘husband’s’ arrival, wants the house decked with all the flowers of Spring, all she and Suzuki can do is flap about with pink petals. Even less engaging is the final scene, with no heart-wrenching parting of mother and child but instead a suicide in the boy’s presence, leaving us contemplating a future for young Sorrow in which his father and stepmother will be spending a small fortune on psychiatrists.
The staging is poetically lit by Mark Jonathan, the small parts are well taken, especially Ida Ranzlov’s Kate and Oleg Budartaskiy’s Bonze, and the videos extolling the delights of America are cleverly used. But it is the orchestra and the Suzuki who provide the emotion which is often lacking elsewhere.