Review: Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera House

Madama Butterfly is one of the most performed operas ever, as it has en enduring appeal due of its themes of love, loss, dignity and deceit. Reaching new heights of realistic exoticism, Puccini’s most courageous heroine Cio-Cio-San manages to captivate audiences and crush their hearts every single time.

This revival of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s minimalist production brings Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho – previously seen at the Royal Opera House in Suor Angelica – to the title role and Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente as Pinkerton. It is a solid revival, although it’s marred by a lack of balance (and chemistry) between the principals. Pinkerton sounds brash and loud, with a tight vibrato that sometimes seems about to break, which contrasts with Jaho’s seemingly easy, delicate and pleasing singing. Also, there is no equal to Jaho’s discreet intensity, and Puente’s attempts at acting seem forced and out of place.

Leiser and Caurier’s production ticks all the boxes with regards to what should be on stage – Nagasaki Bay, flowers, the house itself – but takes a simple approach. The stage is never too crowded, and the space sometimes feels large and empty, which helps accentuate Butterfly’s solitude in Acts II and III. The focus, it seems, is on the performers, dressed beautifully in authentic costumes (although characters like Goro, Yamadori and the Bonze draw their inspiration from kabuki characterisation).

This production needs some time to get going. The showing of the house in the first scene feels a bit forced to begin with, and it isn’t until Pinkerton’s first big aria (‘Dovunque al mondo’) that things start to fall into place. The entrance of Butterfly and her friends – one of the most beautiful moments in the entire opera – comes as a much-needed breeze that demonstrates the potential of the rest of the production. Jaho’s Butterfly – small, modest and shy – lacks the sort of childishness that other performers often give to the character, which is a welcome change. Her portrayal is truthful, mostly unaffected, and of course, deeply moving. Her evolution is believable, and her sheer intensity in the last few scenes is utterly heart-breaking. She is a stylised Butterfly, a hauntingly soul-stirring take on the doomed heroine. Another revelation is Elizabeth Deshong’s Suzuki, who gives an endearing performance that easily shifts into the dramatic, showing-off a velvety lower register that complemented Jaho’s perfectly. From the supporting cast, Scott Hendrick’s Shapless is an engaging presence throughout, as well as Carlo Bosi’s businessman with a creepy side Goro.

Antonio Pappano, as usual, gets from the orchestra the most luscious, exuberant sound that gives both the entrance of the bridal procession and the humming chorus an eerie and dreamy quality. The chorus, both as Butterfly’s relatives and in the humming chorus show a fantastic delicacy.

A real tear-jerker of an opera, this revival of Madama Butterfly has the star it deserves. The unobtrusive production gives Jaho the chance to shine, and to outshine everyone else. If the number of tears shed by the audience is any guide, this revival is a resounding success.

Madama Butterfly is playing at the Royal Opera House until April 25. 

Photo: Bill Cooper