Review: Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera House

In recent months, the new productions mounted by the Royal Opera House have come under some heavy criticism, and the much revived and traditional productions praised again and again – my review of the recent revival of David McVicar’s Die Zauberflöte says just that. It is true that Martin Kušej’s controversial Idomeneo was not a crowd-pleaser, but at least it was a bold and daring step towards something new and exciting for the home of the opera establishment. Perhaps there is a difference in what we want as audiences and what we should want. We seek innovation but  shout it down when it’s not the kind opera we wish to see. These puzzling notions bring me to the latest revival of Puccini’s tragic masterpiece Madama Butterfly, now in its fifth iteration since 2003.

Christian Fenouillat’s set is simple and stunning and Christophe Forey’s  accompanying lighting creates an aesthetic harmony on stage. Directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier have produced a fairytale version of the story, heightened and simplified in presentation. It is a recognisable Madama Butterfly, but it still feels fresh. The reality of the story, and the seedy undertones of Japanese child brides and sex trafficking, is done away with, which is a pity in my opinion. The true tragedy of Madame Butterfly is the stark reality of this innocent and naive young girl placed in a marriage, only to be a one-time play thing of navy officer Pinkerton, then left alone for years to suffer.

Both leads must be given high praise, not only for beautiful and technically superb singing, but for replacing original cast members only days in advance. Brian Jagde, who was already sharing the role of Pinkerton, has a soaring tenor voice and a fitting size for the role and the auditorium. Ana María Martínez sings Butterfly with a richness and poise that one does not expect from a 15-year-old Japanese girl, but that is required and pleasing to see in the role. Never is a Butterfly realistically convincing as a young girl, but Martínez endeavours to bring these characteristics across and mostly succeeds.

Puccini writes so brilliantly and so sadly. Everything about this production is beautiful, like Puccini’s music, but does not excite me like his music can. Madama Butterfly fills seats but does that in itself constitute a successful artistic project? Of course not. The Royal Opera is far from selling out on this occasion, but I would be happy to see this production shelved in favour of more daring exploits. This production does not grip me but is without a doubt a stunning thing to look at and listen to.

Madama Butterfly is playing at the Royal Opera House until 11 April. For tickets and more information, see the ROH website. Photo by Bill Cooper.

Guy Withers

Guy Withers

Guy Withers is a tenor, theatre maker and recent Cardiff University Music Graduate from Bristol studying with Ryland Davies. He is a member of Bristol Opera and Tessitoura, and in addition has sung with many companies around the UK. He is co-founder and Artistic Director of Indomitable Productions, a multi-disciplined performance company, and an Ambassador for The Bristol Old Vic.