Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, the original directors of this 2003 Royal Opera production of Madama Butterfly, are back at the helm for this latest revival, and it shows. The staging has never come across as particularly revolutionary, but there is so much subtlety to be found within it that, much as several revival directors have done well in bringing out the various details, there is nothing quite like seeing the original vision being fulfilled in all its glory.
Christian Fenouillat’s set creates a large ‘minimalist’ space that is then exploited in a variety of ways. Although the same structure stands throughout the evening, Christophe Forey’s lighting designs and the introduction of many details make it feel like a constantly changing creation. The stage is dominated by a platform that forms the basis of Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San’s house, while planks lie around to create adjoining bridges. Although these technically lie inside the house, they still allude to pontoons and waterways that muster up an overall image of Japan.
Paper windows stand on three sides, and these are sometimes opened to reveal backdrops that themselves show different sides to the country. One minute we can be enjoying a realistic view of the Nagasaki harbour, and the next staring at an idealised image of Japan, complete with rolling hills and pink blossom. When the Bonze denounces Cio-Cio-San at the wedding he appears from behind this final backdrop. With this collapsing to reveal him, it is almost as if he is arriving himself from the spirit world that lies beyond Japan.
This revival arguably makes viewers think first and then feel, but this does not mean that they do not do the latter. In fact, it is the production’s ability to reveal so much about the relationships that makes the audience feel the emotions so intensely. Ermonela Jaho who plays Cio-Cio-San epitomises this approach as one can detect the ways in which she plays out the role throughout the opera, before seeing her become so overwhelmed in Act III that the thought processes that go behind her emotions are entirely hidden. This is not intended to imply, however, that until this point she comes across as wooden or obvious as her measured approach is all part and parcel of her building up to such an emotive ending.
Jaho also displays exceptional attention to detail in the way in which she carries herself, and her gestures in ‘Un bel dì’ show how she can almost touch the moment that she pictures in her mind. She then, however, lets out a virtual cry of despair that reveals the desperation with which she clings to the thought that Pinkerton will return because any other possibility is too unbearable to comprehend. Her soprano does not always carry the strength demanded of the role, and there are a few weaknesses in the middle register. However, her sound is well shaped, and her phrasing so strong that the accuracy in her performance as a whole keeps us gripped, even before she moves on to present the most shattering of endings as her voice opens out to the full.
Marcelo Puente as Pinkerton displays a ringing tenor that frequently produces a highly pleasing sound. His lower register is slightly weaker and occasionally as he warms up there is something uncomfortable about the way in which he swoops into the upper register, but overall his performance is highly engaging. He and Jaho also work well together to bring out the notion of Cio-Cio-San as a butterfly, which Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica’s libretto obviously introduces and this production emphasises. Cio-Cio-San’s similarity to the creature is revealed not only in her susceptibility to having her wings crushed, but also in her ability to dream, which is tantamount to flying. The final image before she dies is that of her stumbling across the stage, failing to fly because of her broken wings, which are signified by the long sleeves on her kimono.
The final wedding night scene of Act I also makes the point. The pair hardly touch as Cio-Cio-San gazes outwards dreaming, as if she is not so much experiencing the ultimate as picturing herself flying towards it still. Pinkerton looks on afraid to touch her as if doing so would break such a fragile creature. He does, however, gesture the snatching of a butterfly from the air, signifying his wish to pin her down as his own. The most recent revival in 2015 by Justin Way also strove to bring out the same points in this scene, but it did not do so quite as successfully, and this was almost certainly because the creators of the original vision were not there to ensure exactly how it should be fulfilled.
Elizabeth DeShong gives an excellent performance as Suzuki. With her full, strong, nuanced and frequently dark mezzo-soprano she does not put a foot wrong from start to finish, and in terms of consistency and polish provides the standout performance of the evening. Scott Hendricks reveals a pleasing and reasonably robust baritone as Sharpless, and makes us see just how utterly dreadful the character feels about everything that unfolds. Jeremy White is effective as the Bonze and the fact that this Madama Butterfly overlaps with the Royal Opera’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg makes it possible to see one similarity between this character and Beckmesser. The family guests at Cio-Cio-San’s wedding and the Mastersingers who listen to Walther’s ‘Fanget an! So rief der Lenz in den Wald’ may have their doubts regarding what they observe, but they still come across as possessing reasonably open minds. It is only when the Bonze or Beckmesser begins to lead opposition that the respective group unites behind the ‘leader’, positively turning on the central protagonist and showing outright hostility.
Another similarity between this Madama Butterfly and Die Meistersinger is that the conductor in both instances is Sir Antonio Pappano. His interpretation of the score is extremely multi-faceted as he takes the short prelude at a swift pace that certainly hints at the pain and agitation that is to be unleashed in the story. He also works very well with the singers so that as Cio-Cio-San spies Pinkerton’s ship, and declares that the faith she kept has been vindicated, both Jaho and the orchestra move seamlessly together in a rush of joy. There are times when the sound can seem quite commanding and monumental because it is so well structured, but overall it feels highly sensitive as sweet lines seem to rise out of almost nothing. Like this revival as a whole, the orchestral output can feel subdued, and it is the overall sense of understatement that plays a large part in drawing us into an evening that transcends its imperfections to become extremely persuasive and moving.
From 13 April onwards Ana María Martínez sings Cio-Cio-San, Teodor Ilincăi plays Pinkerton and Renato Balsadonna conducts. For full details visit the Royal Opera House website.
Madama Butterfly will be broadcast live to selected cinemas in the UK and worldwide on 30 March, while some cinemas will also show encore screenings over subsequent days. For details of participating venues visit the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season website.