It must be terrifically daunting presenting one of the most beloved operas of all times. The recently formed Irish National Opera’s production of Puccini's much-loved classic Madama Butterfly was an undoubted success on all levels: a fine cast, classic sets, vivid acting and rich orchestral tones. However, it was the glorious voice of soprano Celine Byrne and her thoroughly convincing portrayal of the doomed Cio-Cio-San that made last night’s staging such a spectacular triumph.

Celine Byrne (Cio-Cio-San) © Patrick Redmond
Celine Byrne (Cio-Cio-San)
© Patrick Redmond

Why do so many directors feel it incumbent upon themselves to update an opera and make it more relevant for a modern day audience? As if the theme of shameless exploitation of the innocence of a 15-year old girl and her abandonment by a much older, feckless husband wouldn’t resonate with the audience, director Ben Barnes felt compelled to envisage Madama Butterfly as a “metaphor of shameless colonial adventurism”. Fortunately, this vision did not intrude much upon the production apart from three minutes of video footage of American incursions in Vietnam during the 1950s distracting us from the dark surges of the orchestral prelude to Act 3.

The sets by Todd Rosenthal were simple and effective with the Japanese house with its tree in bloom or full moon in the background of the first act being transformed in Act 2 into a 1940s American-styled home, with its harsh fluorescent lighting, metallic chairs and tables and conspicuous fridge with a crucifix on top, hollow symbols of wealth and religion. The costumes too were a delight, with red kimonos and coolie hats lending an instant air of authenticity while there was a subtle moral message in the different shades of whites as sported by the morally degraded Pinkerton in his glistening naval uniform (seemingly good on the outside), the hesitant and inept Sharpless in his cream linen suit and the ethereal pure Cio-Cio-San in her satin nightgown on her marriage night.

Brett Polegato (Sharpless) and Julian Hubbard (Pinkerton) © Patrick Redmond
Brett Polegato (Sharpless) and Julian Hubbard (Pinkerton)
© Patrick Redmond

The choreography was top notch with a bustling opening scene of Pinkerton’s apartment being decorated, a delectable and romantic wedding night with creative use of frosted sliding doors and a convincing and suitably dramatic suicide at the end.

The singing ranged from the very good to the superlative. It was Celine Byrne in the title role of Madama Butterfly, who captured everyone’s heart. The technical challenges of the role are as formidable as its dramatic ones. Byrne effortlessly accomplished both, so much so that we were unaware of either but were drawn irresistibly to her, enchanted by the liquid gold of her voice and her piteous fate. Right from the start, Byrne spun her gossamer thread of melody with such confidence and beauty that we were instantly intoxicated. Her “e questo” as she points her son out to the US Consul Sharpless in Act 2 was nothing short of sublime, rending our hearts in twain. From the touching bloom of first love to desperate waiting, Byrne made her Cio-Cio-San utterly believable, so much so, that the abandonment of her child and her ensuing jigai at the end possessed an ineluctable realism.

Celine Byrne (Cio-Cio-San) and Julian Hubbard (Pinkerton) © Patrick Redmond
Celine Byrne (Cio-Cio-San) and Julian Hubbard (Pinkerton)
© Patrick Redmond

There was strong cast supporting Byrne too: Julian Hubbard as the treacherous Pinkerton possessed a taut lyricism, his voice opening up nicely as the opera wore on. Brett Polegato made an excellent Sharpless, the sweet heft of his baritone voice announcing Butterfly's cruel fate. Mezzo soprano Doreen Curran was utterly convincing as Cio-Cio-San’s servant, Suzuki, possessing a supple yet powerful voice, as she sounded the pessimistic note to her mistress in the second act.

The chorus was thoroughly impressive too, singing with gusto at the proposed marriage between Butterfly and Pinkerton at the beginning. There was much to commend in conductor’s Timothy Redmond's rendition of the music, with lush, luxuriant string playing from the RTÉ Concert Orchestra even if at times there was some issues of balance with the percussion instruments that were not in the pit. Overall, this was an intense, unmissable and highly convincing Madama Butterfly.

*****