Across numerous revivals of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s Madama Butterfly there have been many subtle tweaks with much recent discussion concerning cultural appropriation, casting and costume design. All this has been intended to generate greater acceptance for modern sensibilities relating to the work’s contentious stereotypes. Christian Fenouillat’s set, first unveiled in 2003, remains largely undisturbed as a white, wood-framed box for Butterfly’s house, outlined by opaque screens that when raised reveal a sepia-tinted Yokohama harbour and then a rather kitsch Japanese flower arrangement. It’s all rather low budget, though at least the paper blinds look as fragile as the marriage contract that Pinkerton exploits. Yet the notion of exploitation is glossed over, as too concerns associated with imperialism and human trafficking which are largely consigned to our own imaginings. It is then left to the strength of characterisation to create a focus for our perceptions.  

Maria Agresta (Cio-Cio-San)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The success of this latest outing (courtesy of revival director Daisy Evans) rested almost entirely on a sovereign performance by Italian soprano Maria Agresta whose curtain call at the end spoke volumes. But the evening was very much a game of two halves, which until the second act felt distinctly underwhelming. Initial disappointment arrived with a scratchy orchestral prelude, urgent yes, but barely hanging together under the frantic tempo set by Nicola Luisotti. Balance above and below the pit favoured the orchestra, singers battling to be heard and what at first sounded like an under projected Carlos Álvarez as the Consul, Sharpless, was soon followed by Joshua Guerrero’s gilt-edged Pinkerton, wielding a strong tenor voice that needed to be at full throttle to deliver an unyielding “Dovunque al mondo”. We were in no doubt about his loyalty to his native country, yet there was little sign of any casualness towards his forthcoming marriage. Designed to be an unsympathetic character, Guerrero’s account was too benign and his remorse at the end failed to convince.

Joshua Guerrero (Pinkerton) and Maria Agresta (Cio-Cio-San)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Elsewhere, Christine Rice was a dutiful and pitying Suzuki, intermittently venting her frustrations, at one point throwing a malevolent Goro (Carlo Bosi) to the ground, later adding rich tones to a poignant Flower Duet. Álvarez’s benevolent Sharpless grew in stature as did his warm baritone. Jeremy White as an authoritative Bonze and Josef Jeongmeen Ahn as the rejected Prince Yamadori were both well-judged, while Gabrielė Kupšytė's Kate Pinkerton was mostly an ominous presence behind one of the screens.

But it was the standout performance of Maria Agresta as Cio-Cio-San that capped the evening. Dominating the stage throughout the second and third acts, her portrayal of the abandoned Japanese wife was a highly credible creation if not one that showed an obvious traversal from girlhood to womanhood. She may be over twice the age of the fifteen-year-old central geisha girl, but Agresta has a special stage presence and a communicative voice that means you barely take your eyes off her. Whether demure or self-possessed, her voice sailed through this demanding role, bringing plenty of fervour and power to the wedding night duet and heartbreak in “Un bel dì” where she could have almost persuaded us of her husband’s return such was her own conviction.

Christine Rice (Suzuki), Maria Agresta (Cio-Cio-San) and Carlos Álvarez (Sharpless)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Expansive emotions were vividly realised by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Luisotti eventually creating a more sensitive collaboration between them and the cast, his enthusiasm for Puccini’s lavish score never in doubt. Impressive costumes by Agostino Cavalca and Christopher Forey’s atmospheric lighting added much to an evening made memorable for Agresta’s captivating performance.