sun 23/11/2014

Madam Butterfly, Opera North | Opera reviews, news & interviews

Madam Butterfly, Opera North

Thoughtful, schlock-free Puccini revival opens a new season in Leeds

Peter Savidge as Sharpless and Noah Stewart as Pinkerton in Opera North's Madam ButterflyRobert Workman

It’s easy to accuse opera companies in these straitened times of wanting to play safe. Opera North’s 2011-12 season is slightly slimmer than one would expect, but includes five new productions, and the revivals fully deserve their resurrection. Ruddigore is one. Tim Albery’s 1950s update of Madam Butterfly, first performed in 2007, is the other, and it's been given a classy resurrection here.

Puccini’s best operas are disarmingly accessible and musically they’re brilliantly constructed.  The frighteningly young Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni takes charge for most of these performances, and initial responses are overwhelmingly positive – he’s not afraid to let the louder tuttis really rip, only occasionally obliterating the vocal lines. And Rustioni can really strip back and refine the textures when needed –  slow, exposed string lines carry immense pathos and wind solos sound lonely, yearning.

It would be too simplistic to turn Butterfly into a leaden attack on US attitudes towards the wider world; here, it becomes a more universal tale of aggression, greed and sheer stupidity. Noah Stewart’s beaming Pinkerton behaves as if money and rank can get him whatever he chooses. He’s like an excitable child in a toyshop, filled with delight at his new house and his new bride, whom he treats like an exotic purchase. Stewart is so physically engaging – young, attractive, smiling – that you feel reluctantly inclined to sympathise with him. He also knows how to act, and his voice is young enough, fresh enough to make him credible. There’s a lovely moment near the end of Act 1 when Anne Sophie Duprels’s Cio-Cio San slowly changes into her nightgown, and Stewart stands at the other side of the stage, nervously, excitedly smoking a cigarette. He's an oaf with little respect or empathy for the culture which he’s buying into - but likeable for all that.

Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-SanDuprels (pictured right)projects the necessary youthful vulnerability as Cio-Cio San, and we wince as we see her transformation into an American housewife in Act 2. Like Stewart, she moves with as much conviction as she sings; even dramatically compelling when spreading flower petals in anticipation of Pinkerton's return. But the best performances are in supporting roles. Ann Taylor’s Suzuki is a wonderful, expressive foil to Duprels, and even better is Peter Savidge as the American consul Sharpless, whose every shrug suggesting the world-weary cynicism of the professional diplomat. Albery’s updating is unobtrusive and sensitive, making excellent use of Hildegard Bechtler’s set, with its shifting screens and muted colours. Ana Jebens’s costume designs help anchor a sense of time and place. Lighting is by Peter Mumford, who played a huge part in the success of Opera North’s recent semi-staged Das Rheingold. This is impressive stuff, and, despite the tragedy, very entertaining.

  • Madam Butterfly is on at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, then on tour to Nottingham, Newcastle and Salford

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