A delightful picture of the South Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee at an Edinburgh butterfly farm has had deservedly wide exposure across the internet and even made some National papers. The cunning publicity department at Scottish Opera has swung into action making the most of a fortuitous piece of casting. First night live backstage tweets emerged during the performance and little 20 minute pop-up vignettes of Butterfly have been taking place at unlikely venues all over Scotland. It’s all an illustration of how creative opera marketing has become recently. It is an offstage talent at which Scottish Opera excels, building excitement for the opening nights and sustaining momentum for production runs.

Hye-Youn Lee (CioCio-San) © KK Dundas
Hye-Youn Lee (CioCio-San)
© KK Dundas

Scottish Opera’s first ever production was Madama Butterfly, an opera the company has revisited at significant milestones, and this welcome revival of Sir David McVicar’s landmark millenium production will end its run as a showcase for the company at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow July.   

The revival team under Elaine Kidd has ensured that the production has remained true to the original, yet the eye-catching additional contributions from new movement director Namiko Gahier-Ogawa and revival lighting designer Robert B. Dickson made it look really superb.   Designer Yannis Thavoris created an ingenious minimal set of Butterfly’s house on the hill overlooking Nagasaki with its sliding doors, tilted in wonky perspective. Seen from the garden in Act I and then from within for Acts II and III, the beguiling muted brown and cream palette is visually shattered as the opera approaches its shocking end.

There was sharp attention to detail: as the opera opened, the maid Suzuki according to custom took her shoes off before entering the house, but Sharpless the American Consul did not, earning a disdainful stare. The red flower which fell from Butterfly’s hair as she retired after her all-night vigil was picked up and cradled by Pinkerton on his dawn visit. The standard of acting was particularly high throughout.

For this intensive run, Butterfly and Sharpless are both double cast with Hye-Youn Lee and Christopher Purves featured at this performance. Polish mezzo Hanna Hipp sang Suzuki, but it was the chemistry of the partnership between her and Butterfly which was particularly intriguing, growing as the story unfolded. While Butterfly is ‘only fifteen’ when she marries Pinkerton, some productions have an older and wiser Suzuki, but here the age gap was much narrower. During the years between the first two acts, the women have clearly grown closer, exemplified by a visually stunning scene where they, and Butterfly’s child, scatter the house with cherry blossom petals in anticipation of Pinkerton’s return. In the last act, as this young Suzuki knows what’s coming before Butterfly realises, it is all the more shattering for us to watch how she deals with the inevitable. Tellingly, McVicar makes sure she is onstage at the very end.

Christopher Purves (Sharpless) and José Ferrero (Pinkerton) © KK Dundas
Christopher Purves (Sharpless) and José Ferrero (Pinkerton)
© KK Dundas

Overall, the singing was satisfactory but there were patches of poor diction. Christopher Purves was a convincing kindly uncle Consul, too weak to put a stop to Pinkerton’s marriage to a child, and eventually paid by Pinkerton to sort out his mess. Spanish tenor José Ferrero was an able and wonderfully unlikeable Pinkerton, but failed to open out vocally quite enough at times. Elsewhere, and this opera has more than its fair share of tiny parts, there were strong performances from Jonathan May as the slighted Bronze and Andrew McTaggart as ardent suitor Prince Yamadori. Hanna Hipp as Suzuki sang with a lovely rich mezzo voice and really brought something special to the stage. The evening’s focus was of course on Hye-Youn Lee who gave a great performance, thrillingly pulling out the stops for the big numbers, and completely devastating in the farewell to her son.

In the pit, Marco Guidarini set his standards high from the urgent initial fugue motif onwards, and kept things steady and in balance whilst giving clear direction to the singers. The ensembles of wedding guests and the famous “Humming Chorus” were nicely controlled.

Madama Butterfly is a cruel but mesmerising tale. Though the costumes were gorgeous, McVicar’s production was deliberately minimal, allowing the singers and the music to concentrate on powerful storytelling, which they did magnificently.