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Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera

Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera

Great conductor and soprano realise Puccini's deepest heartbreak to perfection

Kristine Opolais's Butterfly with son 'Sorrow' (Oliver Zetterström) and maid Suzuki (Enkelejda Shkosa)All images by Bill Cooper for the Royal Opera

When is a famous aria more than just a showpiece? When it’s a narrative of a future event conjured by a hope beyond reason, which is what Madama Butterfly’s “Un bel dì” (“One fine day”) ought to be but so rarely is: too often prima donna overkill and stereotyped mannerisms get in the way. Not with Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais.

Her Butterfly’s gestures can be stylised but always unusual, setting her apart, an ex-dancing geisha driven almost mad in a three-year wait for a “husband” who won’t come back. The effort of will sees her crumple in the aftermath of her vision.

Opolais (pictured below in Act One) makes every word tell especially in the crystal-clear middle range. The tone can curdle in the higher reaches, but only when she doesn’t use her exciting lirico spinto resources, which are vibrant if not incandescent. But her Italianate style has all the artistry of Mirella Freni and Renata Scotto, and this Butterfly is a complete and multi-hued creation.

Kristina Opolais as Madama ButterflyThe urgency and detail are perfectly mirrored in Nicola Luisotti’s conducting, as perfect in pace and colour as a Puccini performance possibly can be. That’s saying something when the house Puccinian, Antonio Pappano, has until now seemed to have no peer, and when Opolais’s husband, Andris Nelsons, one of the conducting world’s greatest hopes at the moment, shared her triumph back in 2011. But I really can’t remember this masterpiece among opera scores – as perfect, in its own compressed way, as anything by Wagner – ever having its many diamond facets so finely buffed.

Even a single shadowy note held by two double basses can chill the blood as all illusions are stripped away and Butterfly finally realises that not only will the “Yankee vagabondo”, B F (as in bloody fool) Pinkerton, who married her on a short lease and a libido-driven whim, won’t be returning but also that his new wife wants to take Butterfly’s blond-haired, blue-eyed child back to America with them. At this frozen point in the action, all audience coughing is stilled and you can hear a pin drop.

On a superficial level, it’s also worth noting about this extraordinary scene what a wonderful thing the operatic world is when three fine singers who happen to be Latvian, Albanian and Armenian share a stage singing Italian: they are, respectively, Opolais, Enkelejda Shkosa, whose big-hearted maid Suzuki shows that she’s big of voice, too, when she emerges horror-struck from the shadow of her mistress, and Anush Hovhannisyan, who can’t possibly make much of a vocal mark as Kate Pinkerton but, as those of us who saw her in Chelsea Opera’s Le Roi de Lahore know, is a diva who won't have to wait long for her moment in the sun.

The males of the “American” species are stalwart but relatively uninvolving. Brian Jagde’s heavyweight tenor is well contrasted at the start with the lighter sound of Carlo Bosi, luxury casting in the cameo role of the odious marriage-broker Goro, and he hits all the high notes with full-blooded energy. But there needs to be more in the way of sunshine and roses in the voice if we’re to find him an attractive bounder (the hard-hitting supertitles spare us nothing of Pinkerton’s insensitivity from the start). Gabriele Viviani’s baritone could be smoother, and not enough of Consul Sharpless’s sympathy comes across in another slightly stiff performance, but again it’s perfectly serviceable. Their trio with Suzuki is a glowing highlight.

Brian Jagde and Gabriele Viviani in Madama ButterflyAt least both men look good in uniform and stylish suits (pictured left), Agostino Cavalca’s costumes perfectly in tune with Christian Fenouillat's clean and handsome set, a bare wooden space to emphasise the performers, with screens and shutters lifting to reveal diverse backdrops: a sepia-tinted Nagasaki, garden flowers for Butterfly and Suzuki to gather, and, best of all, a blooming Japanese idyll which collapses to reveal Butterfly’s vengeful uncle the Bonze (Jeremy White), alarming against black. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier have every reason to remain proud of their work in the hands of skilful revival director Justin Way: from high in the Royal Opera House, the groupings for the wedding look ravishing and Christophe Forey’s lighting highlights the mood (I’m especially fond of the yellow strips against purple for the Act One love duet).

The only idea which doesn’t quite come off is Cio-Cio San’s lepidopteral fluttering after her hara-kiri, an unfortunate end to an otherwise shattering denouement. But production, singing and orchestral beauty come together exquisitely in scenes such as Butterfly’s vigil with her little son (Oliver Zetterström on the first night, clearly delighted to be in the show as he bounced up and down in the curtain call). Anthony Minghella’s far more compromised ENO Butterfly committed the outrage of an interval at the end of the Humming Chorus, but here the tableau of the waiting women holds and the intermezzo which follows shows Luisotti’s conducting mastery at its most supple. We’re spellbound to the end, lost in another world that turns out to be harsh and pitiless, and you come out (at least I did) disoriented and stricken. You can’t ask more from Puccini’s far from sentimental ending than that.

Opolais's urgency and detail are perfectly mirrored in Nicola Luisotti’s conducting, as perfect in pace and colour as a Puccini performance possibly can be


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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