This revival of Opera North's production of Madama Butterfly, which first appeared at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2007, retains several of the original singers, with Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-San, Peter Savidge (Sharpless) and Ann Taylor (Suzuki). It still works very well. The set, a triumph of simplicity by Hildegard Bechtler, springs from traditional Japanese shoji screens and sliding doors, with a ramp and a depiction of what might be Fujiyama, but which must be another mountain, because this is Nagasaki. It gives a muted tourist's-eye view of a faraway land with exotic customs which serves to foreground dramatic emotions effectively. It fits with the modern take on the opera: although the subsidiary Japanese characters glide about in a traditional way as if they are on ice skates and the Bonze (Dean Robinson) rages wonderfully at Butterfly’s rejection of her cultural heritage, the primary themes of exploitation, hypocrisy and the tragedy caused by the purchase of a child-bride are given the closest attention by Tim Albery, one of Opera North’s most intelligent and creative directors.

Anne Sophie Duprels (Cio-Cio-San) © Richard Hubert Smith
Anne Sophie Duprels (Cio-Cio-San)
© Richard Hubert Smith

It is near-impossible to envisage the action in a Japan which seems now to be part of the 22nd century, and probably not advisable to attempt authentic reconstructions of the late-19th century either. In this production we are distanced from rigid time frames by the injection of a 1950s flavour. The marriage-broker Goro (Joseph Shovelton) is gangster-like, wearing American-style clothes and a wide-brimmed hat. Shovelton makes him vaguely comic as well as sinister. At the very beginning, he is seen scrutinising his pin-board of photographs, bringing to mind the current trade in imported brides via the internet. Soprano Katie Bird makes the most of her brief appearance as Kate Pinkerton in Act 3, wearing a flowery outfit from the mid-1950s and presenting the character as awkwardly warm and sympathetic.

Anne Sophie Duprels (Cio-Cio-San) © Richard Hubert Smith
Anne Sophie Duprels (Cio-Cio-San)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Young Lithuanian tenor Merūnas Vitulskis, making his company debut, is a real find as a Pinkerton brimming with charm and arrogance as he delivers “Dovunque al mondo” with a power and clarity which appears to increase at the top of his register. Americans, he assures the US Consul, Sharpless, can play around with the locals as much as they like, then move on regardless of the consequences. Maybe he has a little too much charm for such a hypocritical and exploitative character, though he did get some pantomime boos when he took his bow at the end.

Anne Sophie Duprels (Cio-Cio-San) and Merūnas Vitulskis (Pinkerton) © Richard Hubert Smith
Anne Sophie Duprels (Cio-Cio-San) and Merūnas Vitulskis (Pinkerton)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Baritone Peter Savidge gives an accomplished, well-honed performance as Sharpless, his voice conveying enormous warmth and sympathy as he attempts the hopeless task of damage limitation from the point of view of a caring diplomat. I am sure tears were in his eyes when he sang “Io so che sue dolore” (I know her pain). His relationship with Butterfly becomes much more significant than her liaison with the feckless Pinkerton. Mezzo Ann Taylor as Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, was an ideal foil for her mistress, her voice assuming stridency at times. When she grabbed Goro and pinned him down skillfully in a ju-jitsu hold she provided a welcome amusing moment.

Peter Savidge (Sharpless) and Anne Sophie Duprels (Cio-Cio-San) © Richard Hubert Smith
Peter Savidge (Sharpless) and Anne Sophie Duprels (Cio-Cio-San)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Anne Sophie Duprels conveys all the emotions of a naïve and volatile teenager using the skills born of long experience in the Butterfly role, which include an outstanding acting ability. She was convincing as a kimono-clad fifteen year-old, a ‘doll’ in her new husband’s eyes, in an Act 1 which took a while to gather energy, and exuded confidence playing the girl who tries to embrace American culture with enthusiastic flapping of the Stars and Stripes. Although the love duet with Pinkerton in Act 1 seemed strangely underplayed on opening night, she was at her peak for the aria the audience was waiting for, “Un bel dì vedremo”, sung with striking sensitivity, a slight tremolo adding to the effect. She was beautifully statuesque gazing out to sea during the Humming Chorus. Albery focuses on her final suicide by shutting most of the stage off, so we see it through a kind of door. The child Sorrow (a terrific Ava Quinn) is not blindfolded, but made to play with toy boats, which fits. The opera would, arguably, have more impact if Pinkerton did not rush in to find her, which I believe is what Puccini originally intended.

Conductor Martin Pickard was constantly alert to the changing demands of the orchestration, dealing with the evocative melodies, the impressionistic tones associated with Butterfly, the brasher sounds for Pinkerton and the incorporated Japanese tunes with panache. All in all, this production has great integrity, and is much more than a tear-jerker with a social conscience.

****1