The portents for this Madama Butterfly were highly promising: an effective, if sparse production, with a devastating final scene; a reliable Italian conductor in the pit; and a fine soprano, who made her House debut in this very role. It was in 2011 that Kristine Opolais stepped in for an indisposed Patricia Racette and wowed London audiences as Cio-Cio-San, the teenage bride bought by US naval officer Pinkerton. Her return to Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s sepia and cream production, revived by Justin Way, was eagerly anticipated. Yet despite a nuanced, dramatic performance, I left slightly underwhelmed.
After the decorative opulence of the recent in-the-round staging in the Royal Albert Hall, or the sleek, lacquered Anthony Minghella production at ENO, Christian Fenouillat’s set is simplicity in itself. A twist on the traditional Japanese construction of sliding shoji paper doors, the set is a wooden box with automated screens that slide up and down to reveal a sepia print of Nagasaki or, later in Act I, an ornamental garden as Butterfly makes a picture-book entrance. It’s not without its problems. I’d never noticed before how noisy are the hydraulics which shunt the set back and forth, while the petals of the falling cherry blossom, as Butterfly commits suicide, positively clatter to the ground. However, the lack of gimmickry allows the focus to rest on the principal characters and the direction of the singers here was pretty sure-footed.
At present, I can think of no finer actress on the operatic stage than Kristine Opolais. With her statuesque height, offering a convincing portrayal of the 15-year old bride is a challenge, yet she is full of chatter and compliments, bashful in the love duet. The opening to Act II finds her continuing in girlish vein, petulantly sulking that Suzuki’s gods are “fat and lazy”: Butterfly, let’s not forget, is still only 18. Her response to Sharpless, the US consul, when he attempts to read her Pinkerton’s letter, is full of child-like excitement. Yet motherhood has forced Butterfly to grow up in so many ways. Opolais fills the role with great dignity. She knows Pinkerton has abandoned her – much of “Un bel dì” is delivered as nothing more than a wistful hope – but she turns on Sharpless with ferocity when he plants the notion that Pinkerton may never return.
Vocally, I harbour a single reservation. Opolais has a beautiful lyric spinto, with a silvery top and glints of steel lower down. However, it’s not a big voice and there were times last night when she was submerged under Puccini’s orchestration. This adds a fragility to her character, which isn’t inappropriate, but I sometimes craved a little more power.
Butterfly’s suicide should be shattering. Taking their cue from Sharpless’ warning to Pinkerton in Act I that “it would be a great sin to tear those delicate wings”, Leiser and Caurier have Butterfly flap her kimono desperately in her death throes. It’s contrived and tacky, not helped by an apparent hitch where Opolais got her robes caught up beneath her, impeding the flailing flutter of her wings.
In the smaller roles, Carlo Bosi’s Goro, the pestering marriage-broker, was excellently sung, as was Jeremy White’s Bonze, gate-crashing the wedding party to curse Butterfly for abandoning her religion.
Nicola Luisotti set off at a cracking pace and drew vibrant string playing from the orchestra. Climaxes were powerful, with more secure brass playing than of late in the Covent Garden pit. Yet it wasn’t all about power; Luisotti encouraged sensitive shaping of woodwind phrases and there was filigree tender string lines in the love duet.
Despite reservations, Jagde’s strongly sung Pinkerton, Luisotti’s urgent conducting and, above all, Opolais’ detailed characterisation makes this revival worth catching.
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