If your favourite part of opera is a soaring melody which stays in your head long after the opera is over, they don’t come much better than Un bel dì in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, in which our enraptured heroine sings of the day that her husband’s ship will reappear on the horizon. At Grange Park last night, Claire Rutter did it full justice. She has a strong voice well able to rise above the orchestral swell of Puccini’s soaring highs or sink down to a perfectly controlled pianissimo, all with beautiful warmth of tone. Vocally, her performance as Butterfly was one to remember.

Claire Rutter as Cio-Cio San © , Alaistair Muir
Claire Rutter as Cio-Cio San
© , Alaistair Muir

It isn’t an easy role to cast, though. When we first see her, Butterfly is a fragile fifteen year old geisha “with silent grace and delicate wings”; with the best will in the world, 99% of operatic sopranos with the vocal power to master the role simply don’t have the physique to look credible in it, and Rutter is no exception. Her act I costume and hairdo, an emulation of Utamaro prints, didn’t do her any favours, making her look more grand and regal than waif-like, although things improved markedly with a green kimono in acts II and III.

Her Pinkerton, Mark Panuccio, was in strong voice and also able to follow Puccini’s melodic lines with elegance and grace, but his voice had a rough edge when hitting high notes at high power, which detracted from the overall performance. On the other hand, Stephen Gadd (Rutter’s husband in real life) gave us a mellifluous baritone as the consul Sharpless, sounding warm, kind and ineffectual, as the role demands. The two men’s cry of “America forever”, accompanied by one of many ironic musical quotes of the Star Spangled Banner, was a splendid moment. The role of Goro, the self-seeking marriage broker, was well played and sung in sinister fashion by Andrew Rees.

Gianluca Mariano and the English Chamber Orchestra gave us a spirited rendering of the score, always vivacious and exciting if not always the most precise.

John Doyle and designer Mark Bailey’s setting went for simplicity and authenticity: a plain backdrop adorned only by a single calligraphic scroll, a sloping stage rear leading to a slightly raised area representing Butterfly’s house, with a couple of chairs and a single door-sized backlit screen. Costumes were accurately of the period (with the notable exception of Goro’s bowler hat). It was all pleasant to look at, but such a minimalist design puts a lot of pressure on the singers to achieve excellence in gesture and movement around the stage, and they didn’t quite achieve it. You could see the director's intent in the little steps of the various Japanese women, the devil-may-care shrug of the shoulders from Panuccio’s Pinkerton and the shambling gait of Gadd’s Sharpless, but the timing was often imprecise and the movements weren’t crisp enough to carry the whole thing off.

So the overall performance had its imperfections, but it’s fair to say that everything tightened up steadily through the evening and Act III was performed strongly and dramatically. The imperfections didn’t prevent Madama Butterfly from being a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s opera: in large part, this is down to a great score and a plot which is taut, poignant and terrifyingly true to life.

There's a reason for this. Arthur Groos's fascinating programme note points out that John Luther Long's short story, on which the opera is based, is almost certainly based on a true story - and clearly one far too near the bone, since Long received a vitriolic response from the U.S. Navy and people associated with it. Groos does a plausible job, however, of identifying the real life U.S. naval officer on which Pinkerton is based. And while the historical context, however accurately portrayed, may seem remote to us, the characters are not: the rich and powerful young man who cares nothing about the morality or consequences of his actions, the infatuated but headstrong girl who follows her heart in spite of all the evidence, the scheming middle man whose interest lies solely in his commission are all characters that we have often met.

Puccini’s genius is in the beauty of his music combined with is ability to bring these characters to life. Claire Rutter was musically top class and, towards the end of this production, completely successful dramatically in portraying a woman who, after years of cruel delusion, understands that she has nothing left to live for.

***11