Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews
Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera
Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera
Strong revival remarkable for the teamwork of Ermonela Jaho and Antonio Pappano
"È un'immensa pietà" - "it's heartbreaking," rather than "it's a huge pity" - sings consul Sharpless of "Butterfly" Cio-Cio San's fatal belief that her American husband will return to her. Heartbreak is what we expected from Ermonela Jaho after her lacerating performances as Puccini's Suor Angelica at the Royal Opera and Leoncavallo's Zazà at the Barbican, and heartbreak is what we got in the most nuanced of interpretations. How much richer it was, though, in perfect accord with Antonio Pappano, who knows and conducts this most beautiful and, ultimately, most devastating of scores better than anyone alive.
Perfection rests in the close-on 90 minute shape of Act Two, charting the hopes, dreams and mental torture of the deserted Japanese child bride; without Pappano's perfect sense of pace and colour, it wouldn't have come across as the supreme operatic achievement it is. Jaho uses all the colour at her disposal, too; having kept the tone mostly light but never falsely girlish for the wedding and love scene of Act One - essentially a prologue - she can be womanly and even grande dame-ish towards rich suitor Yamadori, as well as revealing a core of steel which will serve her at the end and a searing line in the desperate will to believe. I'm sure that the close-ups of the livescreening would have added to the emotional impact; from the Amphitheatre it's hard to see facial nuance."Un bel di" ("One fine day") starts luminously soft, and unfolds as the great visionary monologue it is - a private meditation, despite the presence of maid Suzuki. The silence before it was one of many which spoke volumes in a way that I've never encountered here before; and lines on the cusp of it were just as moving as the more dramatic moments. How piercing were the lines "I'm no longer what I was. These lips have breathed too many sighs...and these eyes have gaze too hard into the distance", wind and string chords mesmerisingly soft against them, as Butterfly prepares the vigil for Pinkerton's return (Elizabeth DeShong, Harry Langton and Jaho pictured above).
It's one of many scenes where directos Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier respect the simplicity of the original stage directions (I've always like the scenes behind the panels, though last night the lighting went awry from time to time, maybe to do with the livescreening). If Butterfly, Suzuki and the child could be seen sitting there during the interlude as well as an exquisite "Humming Chorus", the tension would be perfectly maintained; as it is, a dropcloth to prepare for the dawn cues audience fidgeting before the drama is reasserted. Better that, though, than the disastrous interval in the Minghella production for ENO.Adding to the devastation of Butterfly's predicament is the Suzuki of Elizabeth DeShong, possibly the most opulent mezzo we've had in the role, with a wonderful contralto extension in the lower range, and a sympathetic presence. The men are less good, as too often. Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente (pictured above right with Scott Hendricks) looks the part of the callow American naval officer, but with the bleat in the voice belies Pinkerton's dash: this is a sheep in wolf's clothing, and though the raw material is promising, the dodgy technique suggests imminent burn-out if it isn't sorted soon. Puente is no more comfortable than most tenors with Pinkerton's burning ardour to deflower his 15-year-old child bride.
Scott Hendricks, the perfect young Verdi baritone when I saw him as Rodrigo in a Cologne Don Carlo back in the 1990s, hasn't aged well vocally. Jette Parker artist Gyula Nagy, singing the brief role of the Imperial Commissioner, might have made a better Sharpless; it's surely one of the few Italian baritone roles that can be safely entrusted to an apprentice singer. Former Jette Parker singer Yuriy Yurchuk as Yamadori and Carlo Bosi's Goro also showed more vocal security than the two male principals. But ultimately it's Butterfly and the exquisite-to-cruel colours in which Puccini, the master-orchestrator, paints her, that make the opera, and in this respect a great score has rarely been better served. The similarly committed Ana María Martínez should impress, too, when she takes over from Jaho on 13 April for four performances.
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