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<em>Madame Butterfly</em>, Royal Opera House, London
28 Mar 2017

Ermonela Jaho in a stunning Butterfly at Covent Garden

Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.

Madame Butterfly, Royal Opera House, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San)

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

 

When I saw Jaho at the Barbican in November 2015, in Opera Rara’s semi-staged performance of Leoncavallo’s Zazà I was wowed by the ‘incredible commitment and vocal allure’ that the Albanian soprano displayed as the charismatic chanteuse from the backstreets. Here, similarly, she lived and breathed the role of the culturally and sexually exploited naïf. Her voice may be quite light for a part that demands great stamina and strength, but the power of her stage presence and vocal impact was simply breath-taking. Soft, silky, sensuous, her soprano throbbed with love. The gentleness of her pianissimo captured the tragic naivety of Cio-Cio-San’s misperception of reality. Jaho has a command of phrasing that imbues every melodic line with dramatic meaning. The Act 1 love duet for Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton soared with a passion so fierce that it seemed almost shocking, coming from one so slight and mild. ‘Un bel dì’ was unbearably sweet, Jaho’s voice a tender wisp, as faint as the puff of smoke she longs to see on the horizon. In Act 1 Butterfly charmed Pinkerton and all; in the second she was resolute through heartbreak; and in the final Act she sank into terrible desolation with dignity.

MARCELO PUENTE AS PINKERTON, ERMONELA JAHO AS CIO-CIO-SAN (C) ROH. PHOTO BILL COOPER.jpgMarcelo Puente (Pinkerton), Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Leiser and Caurier focus less on Cio-Cio-San’s cruel exploitation and abandonment and more on her selfless love; this truly is a fragile Butterfly, not a playful or feisty one, and physically Jaho captures all of her grace and delicacy of her airborne namesake, fluttering and hovering with feathery lightness. The floating sleeves of her silk furisode curve and glide; her long black tresses, or taregami, drape sensuously across her form.

Jaho wholly embodied the delicate sensibility that flinches from danger even as it embraces it. The newly married Butterfly shrinks from Pinkerton: ‘They say that in your country, if a butterfly is caught by man, he’ll pierce its heart with a needle and then leave it to perish!’ But, at the close, her frail wings broken, it is Cio-Cio-San’s own ornamental kaiken that delivers the fatal impalement. When, illumined by pale moonlight, the sakura petals tumbled from the outstretched branches of the lone tree, the tragic pathos was almost overwhelming.

ERMONELA JAHO AS CIO-CIO-SAN final act(C) ROH. PHOTO BILL COOPER.jpgErmonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

This was the third time that I have seen this production ( review 2015 ) and I found that my seat in the Amphitheatre offered new visual experiences. The more distant perspective made Christian Fenouillat’s faraway vistas, visible through and beyond the sliding shoji screens, acquire an air of whimsical romance, while the blue-pink mist, or shūyū, which drifts through the ornamental garden infused Butterfly’s entrance with fairy-tale romance. Similarly, the criss-crossing shards of coloured light at the close of Act 1 created an even more penetrating sense of restlessness and disorientation, while, the jarring complementary colours of the lighting scheme seemed to suggest both a dreamy otherworldliness and a disturbing unease.

MARCELO PUENTE AS PINKERTON (C) ROH. PHOTO BILL COOPER.jpgMarcelo Puente (Pinkerton). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Marcelo Puente looked the part as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, though he lacked the leering arrogance more common among interpreters - indeed, the ‘boos for the baddie’ at the curtain call seemed even more inappropriate than usual. Despite some initial graininess in Act 1 and a little strain at the top, by the end-of-act duet Puente had settled into what was a strong performance, if a little stiff dramatically.

Making her ROH debut American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong exhibited a wonderfully glossy lower register as a fierce, loyal Suzuki, animated of manner and voice; Carlo Bosi’s self-important, guileful Goro suffered the sharp end of her tongue. I’d like to see much more of DeShong at the ROH.

CARLO BOSI AS GORO, ELIZABETH DE SHONG AS SUZUKI (C) ROH. PHOTO BILL COOPER.jpgCarlo Bosi (Goro), Elizabeth DeShong (Suzuki). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Returning, like Bosi, to reprise their 2015 roles, Jeremy White as the Bonze and Yuriy Yurchuk as Yamadori contributed to the consistent high musical and dramatic standards. White harangued stentoriously; Yurchuk made Yamadori a figure of noble pride. Scott Hendricks was a fairly light-weight Sharpless but interacted well with Jaho. Jette Parker Young Artist Emily Edmonds sang Kate Pinkerton with accomplishment.

SCOTT HENDRICKS AS SHARPLESS (C) ROH. PHOTO BILL COOPER.jpgScott Hendricks (Sharpless). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Expertly propelling the drama along with surefooted ease and naturalness, Sir Antonio Pappano made yet another remarkably vigorous contribution in the pit, pushing the surging climaxes to their peaks and allowing the tender moments to speak for themselves.

This is a stunning Butterfly. Grab a ticket if you can, or catch it in cinemas when it is broadcast live on Thursday 30th March: http://www.roh.org.uk/showings/madama-butterfly-live-2017

Claire Seymour

Puccini: Madame Butterfly

Cio-Cio-San - Ermonela Jaho, Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton - Marcelo Puente, Sharpless - Scott Hendricks, Goro - Carlo Bosi, Suzuki - Elizabeth DeShong, Bonze - Jeremy White, Kate Pinkerton - Emily Edmonds, Imperial Commissioner - Gyula Nagy, Prince Yamadori - Yuriy Yurchuk; Directors - Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, Conductor - Antonio Pappano, Set designer - Christian Fenouillat, Costume designer - Agostino Cavalca, Lighting designer - Christophe Forey, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday 27th March 2017.

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