A staple of the operatic repertoire around the world, this was my third Madama Butterfly this year although in contrast to the first two live productions, this was a televised performance of ROH’s 2017 offering, directed by Moishe Leiser and Patrice Caurier.
We open with marriage broker Goro (Carlo Bosi) showing US naval lieutenant Pinkerton (Marcelo Puente) round the home he will share with his Butterfly bride-to-be. Pinkerton is obsessed about possessing her even if he crushes her fragile wings, whilst American Consul Sharpless (Scott Hendricks) warns him of the tragic consequences his game could have. The Butterfly duly lands in the form of young Japanese girl Cio-Cio-San (Ermonela Jaho) supported by maid Suzuki (Elizabeth DeShong), and they are married by the Commissioner (Gyula Nagy). Her love makes her willing to sacrifice everything for him and sees her disowned by her uncle, a Bonze (Jeremy White). Her butterfly silhouette as she undresses is framed by her fear of being pinned to a board, never to escape. The act-closing four-part love duet is an emotional delight – everything you could want it to be and some.
The second act finds Cio-Cio San living with Suzuki but almost destitute: Pinkerton had left promising to return within a year but three years on is still not back. She gazes out to the sea and dreams of the day they will be reunited. Sharpless arrives with a letter confirming the imminent arrival of an American ship but doesn’t have the heart to tell her Pinkerton has remarried, especially when she introduces him to the two-year old blonde-haired Dolore, her son with, and ever-present reminder of, Pinkerton. He encourages her to marry Prince Yamadori (Yuriy Yurchuk), a willing suitor, but she has eschewed her native culture for American values and any doubts are wiped away by the arrival of the ship.
Cio-Cio-San waits expectantly for Pinkerton’s return but eventually retires exhausted. Sharpless and Pinkerton arrive with Pinkerton’s wife, Kate (Emily Edmonds), and ask Suzuki to explain to Cio-Cio-San that Pinkerton wishes to take away the child. Cio-Cio-San appears full of joy but seeing Suzuki’s solemn face realises the true intentions behind his visit and only tragedy can ensue.
All the cast performed strongly. Jaho’s characterisation is suitably coy and bashful, perfectly capturing the vulnerable fragility before blossoming beautifully with the hopeful ‘Un bel di vedremo’. She is ably attended by DeShong’s affectionate and dutiful Suzuki. Hendricks captures the increasing bewilderment of Sharples as events unravel and he is only left with his sympathy to offer, whilst Puente’s powerfully sung Pinkerton is certainly no gentleman and in spite of his apparent remorse towards the end he is rightfully booed before receiving the deserved applause for his performance.
There is a simplicity to Christian Fenouillat’s set design – accompanied by Agostino Cavalca’s costume design and Christophe Forey’s lighting – that whilst perhaps the perfect cultural nod to its location setting, is too often underwhelming, and although I’m still recovering from the shocking pink cherry blossom, its shedding during the dramatic finale in conjunction with the fluttering of the kimono was a heart-wrenching capture of the destruction of this butterfly, and combined with the performances throughout, more than made up for any apparent shortfall.
Antonio Pappano conducts with his usual flair and passion, coaxing every subtle nuance out of the orchestra as they delightfully embrace both the tenderness and cruelty of this despairing tale.
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 26th September 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★