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Kristīne Opolais as Cio-Cio-San [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera]
29 Jun 2011

Sensitive, intelligent Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera

This Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the depth and intelligence of the human story Puccini might be trying to tell us, beneath the surface gloss.

Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly

B F Pinkerton: James Valenti; Goro: Robin Leggate; Suzuki: Helene Schneiderman; Sharpless: Anthony Michaels-Moore; Cio Cio San: Kristine Opolais; Imperial Commissioner: Daniel Grice; Cio Cio San's family: Eileen Hamilton; Alan Duffield; Elizabeth Key; Kiera Lyness; The Bonze: Jeremy White; Prince Yamadori: Zhengzhong Zhou; Dolore: Niklas Allan; Kate Pinkerton: Rachael Lloyd. Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House. Conductor: Andris Nelsons. Directors: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. Set Designer: Christian Fenouillat. Costume Designer: Agostino Cavalca. Lighting Designer: Christopher Forey. Royal Opera House, London, 25th June 2011.

Above: Kristīne Opolais as Cio-Cio-San

All photos by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera


When this production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly premiered in 2003, I remember being startled at how stark the production seemed, with its clean horizontal lines and open spaces. Very different indeed from the over-stuffed, over-fussy clutter of fin de siècle clichés about Japan. WesternJaponisme as decorative wrapping has little to do with reality. Madama Butterfly is a powerful opera because it deals with real human dilemmas, by no means unique to Japan or to the early 20th century.

MADAMA-BUTTERFLY.10075_729.gifJames Valenti as Pinkerton and Kristīne Opolais as Cio-Cio-San

Instead, this production, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, uses the Japanese context intelligently so it works with the drama. Japanese art is stylized, blank spaces part of the design, so key details stand out in sharp focus. The sets in this production, designed by Christian Fenouillat, are clean and open, so there’s no irrelevant distraction. The backdrop of shoji screens allows quick scene changes, contrasting the interior with the vast panorama outside. It’s a telling comment. As Goro points out, changing the walls changes perspective. This opera isn’t really “about” Japanese society as much as about the way people don’t perceive things in the same way.

As Caurier and Leiser said in their recent interview with Opera Today, Madama Butterfly is “not a beautiful story, it’s awful, it’s violent. Yes, you see the flowers but you must have the smell of blood running through them”. Throughout history, those with wealth and power have always been able to exploit those who don’t. Pinkerton buys a package, house, servants, mock family and a girl to use as sexual convenience. He’s infatuated temporarily by Butterfly’s beauty but he’s under no illusion that he’s interested in her other than as an object to gratify his ego. Perhaps that’s why he takes the child. He can’t conceive that its mother or culture mean anything.

Butterfly is so desperate to escape her background that even before she meets Pinkerton, she’s obsessed about becoming an instant American. She invests so much in her delusion that she can’t cope with reality. She kills herself, not simply because harakiri “is” custom, but because she’s invested so much into her fixation that she can’t live with reality…“nulla, nulla, fuor che la morte”.

Although this is the third revival of this production since 2003, the performance felt vivid because it was directed, not by substitutes, but by Leiser and Caurier themselves. Every performance has to be “new” because casts change and circumstances change. Patricia Racette, who has sung Cio Cio San many times before, pulled out at the last minute, but in some ways that was fortunate, because Kristine Opolais, making her Royal Opera House debut, throws herself so convincingly into the part that she makes it her own. She’s young enough to convey Butterfly’s innocence but has strength of personality, which comes through in her singing. She sings the love duet with such intensity that you wonder how a 15 year old could find such passion, especially for a stranger she’s just met. This emphasizes Butterfly’s single-minded determination. Reality doesn’t get in the way of imagination.

MADAMA-BUTTERFLY.10075_359.gifJames Valenti as Pinkerton

Opolais’s Butterfly is nicely varied. After the Bonze’s curse, her voice takes on a tense edge, showing that Butterfly is deeply traumatized, but soon switches back to gentleness when she turns to Pinkerton. Swift reactions matter, for Cio Cio San is always adapting, and living intensely in the moment. Opolias’s interaction with Dolore (Niklas Allan) feels genuine. She’s not singing to an object, or a puppet, but as real mother to real child. Madama Butterflies stand and fall on “Un bel di vedremo”, and Opolais conveys true emotional engagement. She’s not merely describing a sequence of events, but how they feel to her. An interesting voice, with good range, and a natural acting singer. She’s a regular at the Berlin Staatsoper, where she’ll be singing Butterfly in March 2012.

James Valenti as Lt. Pinkerton is rather less successful, although he has had the role in his repertoire for years. Arguably, Pinkerton is emotionally more buttoned up than many men, but Puccini builds a lot more into the part than repression. Perhaps further into the run, Valenti’s voice may blossom, and hopefully be preserved at its best in the film that’s being released on BP Big Screen and cinemas on 4th July. Anthony Michaels-Moore sang Sharpless with warmth, for the Consul is a figure of reasonableness in this claustrophobic world of extremes.

MADAMA-BUTTERFLY.10075_192.gifKristīne Opolais as Cio-Cio-San and Jeremy White as Bonze

From the vigour with which Robin Leggate sang Goro, it was hard to believe that he’s retiring after the end of this production, his 909th performance at the Royal Opera House, since 1977. This Goro is directed so he moves swiftly, reflecting the character’s quick wits and cunning. Leggate sings with unflagging energy, despite having to be fleet of foot.

Similarly, Helene Schneiderman’s Suzuki was vibrant and expressive. There’s a lot more to this role than mere servant. Suzuki can be cocky, although she’s loyal. Cio Cio San isn’t completely the mistress even at home. Schneiderman intones her prayer to the gods so forcefully that when she sings with Butterfly, you pick up on the undercurrent of tension that exists even in their relationship. Suzuki’s gods will win; Cio Cio San hasn’t a chance.

MADAMA-BUTTERFLY.10076_0086.gifRobin Leggate as Goro, Helene Schneiderman as Suzuki, Kristīne Opolais as Cio-Cio-San and Anthony Michaels-Moore as Sharpless

Buddhists don’t normally curse people, and in Japan, Buddhism co-exists with Shinto quite happily. Buddhists have a lot in common with Christians too. This Bonze is a figment of Puccini’s imagination, created to inject extreme panic, for he smashes forever Cio Cio San’s links with her past. Perhaps that’s why in this production, he appears all-white, like an apparition of a ghost from a Japanese horror story, not as a living monk. Jeremy White’s Bonze bursts onto the scene, screaming violently, striking terror. Great theatre, as Puccini must have intended.

Zhengzhong Zhou sings Prince Yamadori and Daniel Grice sings the Imperial Commissioner. Both impressed, proving how the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme nurtures singers in good directions. Yamadori is an interesting role which could be developed more than it usually is. Why would a prince marry a second-hand geisha, especially one who’s been cursed for consorting with foreigners? He rides a carriage up the steep hill, whereas everyone else in this opera walks. Why would a man of that status humiliate himself by divesting all his other wives? Zhou sings the part with tenderness, creating a sincere Yamadori who is emotionally honest and vulnerable though he has all the trappings of power. Pinkerton in reverse?

MADAMA-BUTTERFLY.10076_0945.gif(Front to Back) Kristīne Opolais as Cio-Cio-San and Helene Schneiderman as Suzuki

Andris Nelson conducted. He’s currently Music Director at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Simon Rattle’s former post), but conducts a lot of opera, including engagements in Bayreuth, New York, Berlin and Vienna.

For more information, please see the Royal Opera House website.

Anne Ozorio

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