Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Madama Butterfly: How do you solve a problem like Cio-Cio San?

14 June 2022

A revamped butterfly effect onstage in Covent Garden.

Madama Butterfly

Kseniia Nikolaieva, Lianna Haroutounian & Freddie De Tommaso (Photo: Yasuko Kageyama)

Viewed through a post #metoo lens, the problems Madama Butterfly poses seem almost insurmountable. Riddled with lazy cultural stereotypes, and taciturnly giving the nod to underage sex, is it possible to stage it convincingly these days, or is it best left well alone? The latter isn’t really an option – financially at least, as any run of Butterfly guarantees bums on seats. One option is to dispense with all the Japanese trappings entirely, as Lindy Hume did for her recent Welsh National Opera staging, presenting it instead as modern tale of sexploitation. The Royal Opera, reluctant to ditch their 2003 Leiser/Caurier staging, have gone for another option – toning down some of the most outlandishly offensive aspects with the help of a group of consultants who know a thing or two about Japanese culture.

In many ways, this decision is a bit of a fudge – the operatic equivalent of kicking the ball down the road – and could potentially have the worst desired outcome, in that it pleases no one. In an ideal world they’d have ditched this current staging, and started afresh, but money’s at a premium, so that evidently wasn’t an option. So, having seen this staging several times, I tried to work out what had changed. The garish white make-up has gone, costumes have been adjusted and are now more authentic, while the way characters move and stand on stage has been given an overhaul as well. Cio-Cio San’s death throes are less gimmicky than before – thankfully she no longer flails across the stage, flapping her ‘wings’ – but despite all these adjustments, genuinely done in an attempt to make the opera more palatable, no amount of soul-searching or tinkering can detract from the misogyny at its core. The staging is back in the autumn but given that its bland Ikea aesthetic looked tired twenty years ago, a brand new one ought to be top of Oliver Mears’ to-do list.

“Riddled with lazy cultural stereotypes, and taciturnly giving the nod to underage sex…”

Madama Butterfly

Lianna Haroutounian (Photo: Yasuko Kageyama)

The title role is tricky to cast – both dramatically and vocally. One of Puccini’s longest soprano roles, it requires a singer with enough heft in the voice to carry over some dense orchestration, while being sufficiently demure and coquettish to convince us she’s 15. Few sopranos are capable of ticking all these boxes, although two in recent years, Kristine Opolais and Ermonela Jaho, have come close. On the first night Liana Haroutounian took a while to get into her stride and didn’t really tug on the heart strings until the second act, but there’s enough steel in the voice to carry, and she was unbearably moving as the evening drew to its inexorable close.

Freddie De Tommaso did his best to make one of opera’s most despicable characters three-dimensional. His remorse at the end seemed genuine, and he sang with thrilling ardour. Once past a hiccup in the first act where a top note failed to ‘voice’, his authentic Italianate tone rang out sensationally. As Sharpless, Lucas Meachem gave a masterclass in firm, legato singing, while Patricia Bardon’s knowing Suzuki was sung with her customary rich, mezzo-soprano tones.

In the pit conductor Dan Ettinger conducted like a bull in a china shop. All the singers had an uphill struggle to be heard above the torrent of orchestral sound he coaxed from the orchestra – there’s so much light and shade in this score that was simply ignored. Yes, the orchestra played well, but given this opera’s been entrusted to Antonio Pappano and Nicola Luisotti in recent seasons, who really know how this score should go, Ettinger’s unsubtle, garish account came as an unwelcome surprise. A mixed evening then, but it’ll be interesting to see what The Royal Opera’s long-term solution to this problematic operatic warhorse will be.

More information on this production can be found here.

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Madama Butterfly: How do you solve a problem like Cio-Cio San?