Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Madama Butterfly review – a star soprano revitalises Puccini’s opera at Covent Garden

14 March 2024

Asmik Grigorian embodies Puccini’s tragic geisha girl to perfection, leaving us grasping for superlatives.

Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Seldom out of The Royal Opera’s repertory, this was the third outing for the company’s revamped staging of Puccini’s tear jerker. It’s always been an audience favourite at this particular address, but as a work it’s arguably more guilty of cultural misappropriation than any other opera in the standard repertoire. You don’t have to dig too deep under the Japonaiserie on the surface to reveal a degrading tale about the sexual exploitation of a fifteen year old girl. Despite Puccini’s iridescent, and perfectly crafted score, the story can’t help but leave a nasty taste in your mouth.

By way of addressing these unsavoury aspects head on, in 2022 The Royal Opera engaged the services of Etsuko Handa and Sonoko Kamimura who were brought in to strip away the questionable stereotypes that were the norm in 2002 when this Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser staging was new. Times have rightly changed, so it’s out with the garish makeup, disrespectful costumes and over-accentuated hand gestures, in with more sedate costumes, historically accurate hand gestures and makeup. I gave this updated staging a cautious welcome at its first outing, thinking it was more of a fudge than a radical rethinking this problem work called out for.

At this revival however, thanks to a superlative soprano in the title role, a strong supporting cast and a sympathetic conductor, the results were a revelation. It just goes to show how a change in personnel can radically change one’s perception of a staging, and while this version will never escape its IKEA-vibe, under revival director Daisy Evans’ sure hand and perceptive eye for detail it came across freshly minted.

There are very few sopranos these days who can genuinely claim to be a diva, but Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian is one of them. Having seen her before in two of her signature roles – Jenůfa (Berlin Staatsoper and Covent Garden) and Rusalka (Covent Garden and the Bavarian Staatsoper), in which she excelled, I was fascinated to see how she’d fare in one of the most arduous roles in the Italian repertoire, and am pleased to report that she was nothing short of sensational.

“…the story can’t help but leave a nasty taste in your mouth”

Madama Butterfly

Joshua Guerrero & Asmik Grigorian (Photo: Marc Brenner)

On stage for most of the evening, Cio-Cio-San is a big sing – certainly the longest soprano role Puccini penned, and Grigorian didn’t falter for one second. From her first entry, embodying the character’s sense of ingénue to perfection, she never resorted to cliché. Every movement, every change of facial expression was done in service of the drama, and she charted the journey the character goes on – the blossoming of first love, through betrayal, to the tragic denouement – unflinchingly. And she used her large, bright, mellifluous soprano to mirror these shifts in temperament by deploying a myriad of vocal colours with breathtaking flexibility. Puccini’s vocal lines have rarely sounded this lustrous, and she wasn’t afraid to risks either – most notably at the start of ‘Un bel di’, where she pared her voice down to a whisper, to mesmerising effect. Utterly spellbinding, while her death was properly devastating.

The supporting cast was good, with Joshua Guerrero returning as a full-throated, ardent Pinkerton, who for once seems genuinely shocked at the close when confronted with the reality of the situation he’s created. Hongni Wu was a perfectly poised, all-knowing Suzuki, possessing a richly coloured, resonant mezzo-soprano who was as strong vocally as she was dramatically. Lauri Vasar displayed a well-schooled baritone as the consul, Sharpless, even if he didn’t always phrase as eloquently as the other members of the cast.

In the pit Kevin John Edusei thankfully banished the unhappy memories of his predecessor’s bull in a china shop approach to this rich, fascinating score, drawing impassioned yet nuanced playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera, whilst supporting his singers admirably, and never drowning them – no mean feat given how densely this work is scored.

All in all, this was a thrilling evening, made unforgettable by Grigorian’s astonishing assumption of the title role, which as far as I’m concerned is the finest and most complete to grace this stage in a generation. She’s only scheduled to sing five more performances before the second cast takes over. Miss her at your peril.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.

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