Madama Butterfly is one of the most beloved of Puccini’s operas; one where he fully displays his ability to push emotional buttons. The plot, as overemotional as it is, presents aspects that are still relevant today. The dashing American lieutenant who “marries” a teenage Japanese geisha for a few weeks could be any of today’s sexual tourists; his dehumanization of Cio-Cio-San and his in-your-face racism are, sadly, still relevant. Butterfly’s inability to see the reality of his abandonment stems from her refusal to go back to her life of “dancing” for rich customers; her choosing death is both heartbreaking and relevant.

Madama Butterfly
© Markus Gårder (September 2018)

The plot is set in the house that Pinkerton has bought for Butterfly. In this production, the action was moved (inconsequentially) to a postcolonial period in the middle of the 20th century, with Butterfly’s family in Asian-kitsch clothes (costumes by Herbert Murauer). The stage setting was modern, with low sofas and Japanese accents, such as a large cherry blossom tree depicted on one wall. The simple sets, also by Murauer, framed the action without interfering and let the characters tell the story.

And they told the story beautifully. Asmik Grigorian’s voice, in this stage of her career, is perfect for this repertoire, and she made Cio-Cio-San come alive. Her voice was full of sweetness, love, rage, desperation and, at times, humour. Her high notes were shiny blades of steel without a hint of ruggedness, her emission never forced, her filati unbearably soft and still rich in harmonics. She proved that she understood Butterfly’s characters completely, in every nuance. For the first time, I saw how deeply she is aware of Pinkerton’s abandonment, and how her granitic belief in his return is a façade, a desperate charade that she plays to fool herself. At the end, there was much Swedish-like inconspicuous dabbing of tears throughout the theatre; my mascara, however, was running in pure Italian dramatic fashion.

Pinkerton was Migran Agadzhanyan, from Belarus, a 26-year-old who won the second prize at the Operalia competition this year. His tenor is exciting and heroic, with bright high notes and a baritonal quality which gave expression and passion to his singing. The love duet at the end of Act 1 was particularly successful; unfortunately, the director Kirsten Harms chose to leave the two lovers stranded in different corners of the stage, far away from each other, even when Pinkerton sings of kissing her hands. They embrace only at the end of the duet. This somewhat diminished the effect of one of the best love duets of Italian opera; nevertheless, Grigorian and Agadzhanyan managed to make their love believable, singing with passion and great mastery.

The Royal Swedish Orchestra proved its worth, as it usually does in post-romantic repertoire. Young conductor Ben Gernon gave a somewhat boisterous reading of the score – at times some of the singers were a bit overpowered by the pit – but the performance was very effective. The Royal Swedish Chorus was enjoyable in Act 1, and the Humming Chorus was a delight. The conductor decided to respect Puccini’s choice of not interrupting the scene between Act 2 and Act 3, using the Humming Chorus as the bridge which represents the night passing between the two acts. The scene was evocative, with Butterfly and her child walking in the background, waiting for Pinkerton’s arrival, the lights dimming, and Suzuki sleeping peacefully on a couch.

Katarina Leoson was a strong Suzuki, with a powerful, well supported mezzo; while Ola Eliasson’s Sharpless was elegant and well portrayed, although lacking some projection at times. Daniel Ralphsson was a suitably sleazy Goro, sung with gusto, and all the other minor characters contributed to a great success. Special mention to the child, Vilma Nyquist, who was on stage for most of Act 2 and Act 3, participating with remarkable professionalism.