Take an exquisite production of a Puccini tearjerker, cast it attractively… then crush its fragile wings under the weight of the Albert Hall’s vastness. Madama Butterfly is a perfect opera for first-timers – an uncomplicated plot, gorgeous music that many would recognise parts of – and the visual spectacle here is enormously appealing. However, poor amplification and a lack of surtitles, despite the opera being sung in English, rendered much of the text unintelligible.

© Paul Sanders
© Paul Sanders

It’s easy to see the attractions of David Freeman’s production, first staged in 1998 and now back for its fifth revival. David Roger’s designs are picturesque – stereotypical of western impressions of Japan that both Puccini and David Belasco (whose play inspired the opera) would have recognised. The Hall is flooded in Act I to create a Japanese water garden – all lotus blooms and paper lanterns – in the midst of which is Pinkerton’s new purchase: a house made from a simple frame with sliding doors and paper walls, wound about with wisteria. He casually awaits his other new purchase: Madam Butterfly, his wife. The open framework and busy boardwalks surrounding it meant there was plenty of action in this ‘in the round’ staging. Act I was too busy. Wedding guests arrive via the Hall’s many aisles (jostling with latecomers) and Freeman has his extras dotted around, fixing fishing nets and such, distracting the eye. The costumes are beautiful, however, and the love duet, with tea-lights floating in the garden, creates a touching spectacle.

For Act II, austerity reigns. The water is drained, leaving a stone garden and a crusting of salt crystals. Fewer extras are employed and we can focus on the central action: Butterfly’s naïve hope that Pinkerton will return. This is where the performance delivers emotional impact. Moments that pack a punch include that where Butterfly rushes to fetch her son, a blond moppet in sailor suit, to show the American consul, Sharpless.

Hyeseoung Kwon (Cio-Cio-San) and Jeffrey Gwaltney (Pinkerton) © Paul Sanders
Hyeseoung Kwon (Cio-Cio-San) and Jeffrey Gwaltney (Pinkerton)
© Paul Sanders

The show is attractively cast (three casts rotate across the next three weeks). It’s not their fault that much of what they sing cannot be understood. Performing in the round in such a large venue does require amplification. My recent experience at Orfeo at London’s Roundhouse demonstrated, albeit at a much smaller venue, that mild amplification can be done sensitively and highly successfully. Here, it was as if the performers were planted in a giant Turkish bath – the aural mush coming from the orchestra doing Puccini’s delicate score few favours. Also, casting three Koreans in the title role and then performing the opera in an English translation seems a perverse decision. Amanda Holden’s translation is decent, although rhymes such as “ornamental/gentle” and “army/origami” are groan-worthy.

Making her UK debut, Hyeseoung Kwon was a fine Cio-Cio San, one of the few sopranos singing Butterfly who could very nearly pass for fifteen in Act I. Hers is a light lyric soprano, arguably too light for the role when it moves into heavier territory in Act II and she was a touch hesitant in “One fine day”. Her acting was deeply affecting – girlish when required and dignified in taking her own life at the end.

Hyeseoung Kwon (Cio-Cio-San) and Sabina Kim (Suzuki) © Paul Sanders
Hyeseoung Kwon (Cio-Cio-San) and Sabina Kim (Suzuki)
© Paul Sanders
American tenor James Gwaltney has just the right voice for Pinkerton. Even the microphones couldn’t disguise the fact that here is a voice with Puccinian ping. Freeman doesn’t have anything profound to tell us about this character other than a shrug when Sharpless asks him if his new bride is pretty: he’s not even seen her yet, making Pinkerton even more of a cad than usual.

Sabina Kim sang an effective Suzuki, waspish in dealing with the slippery marriage-broker, Goro, and blending well with Kwon in their duet distributing flowers around the house for Pinkerton’s expected return. David Kempster brought gravitas to the sympathetic role of Sharpless, along with the evening’s finest diction. Oliver Gooch drew big, expansive playing from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, although the amplification did them the fewest favours. Julius Ahn’s bustling Goro and Michael Druiett’s Bonze emerged strongly from the rest of the cast.

If you’re a seasoned operagoer, there is much to enjoy in this popular, traditional staging. If you’re a newcomer, there’s a fair chance the production will beguile you – just ensure you read up on the plot beforehand.