Peter Mumford’s lighting design is the first thing which strikes the eye in this captivating 2009 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, directed by Anthony Minghella. The curtain rises, in silence, to a beautiful sunrise orange. Hsin Ping Chang, bearing two fans which seem to represent the protagonists’ paths, dances in silence for almost a minute before the orchestral prelude begins, prompting the portentous unravelling of her blood-red sash. This element of foretelling is key to both music and dialogue. Frequent use of fans adds dramatic curves to the rectangular screens and steps of Michael Levine’s ingeniously simple set. Reflective golden fans shield shocked faces at the moment of Butterfly’s downfall.

In an opening scene redolent of Le Nozze di Figaro, Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, wonderfully played by tenor Marcello Giordani, surveys his bride’s home with Goro, a matchmaker. Soon they are joined by the rich bass voice of Dwayne Croft in the role of US consul Sharpless, whose tweed apparel contrasts with Pinkerton's white naval commander's uniform. This contrast of western clothing is soon dwarfed by the visual feast of Japanese wedding guests. Han Feng’s costume design is truly breathtaking. The colourful throng usher in the central character, 15-year-old Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly), magnificently played by soprano Patricia Racette, whose performance here thoroughly deserves its standing ovation.

In addition to outstanding vocal ability, Ms Racette’s acting talent is remarkable. We have excellent camera work to thank here. At just the right moments, breathtaking panoramic scenes cut to close-up, allowing us to note that Racette has the most amazingly alive face. Every dramatic nuance registers, from nascent emotions to conflicting ones.

This contrasts wonderfully with a very significant element in the production – the use of puppets, supplied and handled by Blind Summit Theatre. Very much like Japanese Noh puppets, the two involved have expressionless faces. However, everything is affectingly communicated by bodily movement. This is all the more remarkable as Butterfly’s son is handled by three Ninja-like dancers (Kevin Augistine, Tom Lee, Marc Petrosino). Behind diaphanous veils their faces confirm emotions already expressed through the puppet’s limbs and posture. When, in a waking dream sequence, Butterfly appears in puppet form, alongside James Graber, in Carolyn Choa’s touching choreography of heartbreak, we somehow see in her still face what we know to be true. This same choreography contains another ancient Japanese art form – origami – the folded feathers flocking above the heads of Ninja-style dancers, in much the way lanterns had in the earlier wedding night scene.

In addition to numerous excellent vocal solos, two ensemble moments stand out dramatically: “Vogliatemi bene” (“Love me, please”) in Act I, where Pinkerton and Butterfly come together, on their wedding night, and “Io so che sue dolore” (“I know that her pain”) in Act III, where Sharpless, Pinkerton and Butterfly’s servant Suzuki painfully express the nuances of their perception of Butterfly’s fate and their hand in it. Mr Croft is excellent here as the innocent Consul, trapped between individuals and cultures. He seems a good man whose only hand in this sad matter was to predict the outcome. Suzuki, played by the marvellous alto Maria Zifchak, is the loyal servant throughout, happy or distraught in tandem with her mistress. Suffering being more dramatic than contentment, her character, under Mr Minghella’s fine direction, develops as Butterfly’s misfortunes unfold.

The orchestra, conducted by Patrick Summers, are faultless and (thanks to excellent audio recording and balance) they remain, like all good opera orchestras, strangely unnoticed – until the work’s astonishing final chord.