There’s been a lot of hand-wringing on Bow Street. Under the shadow of cancel culture, The Royal Opera – like many other companies – has been examining its repertoire, its casting and the way it represents different cultures on stage. Few operas are as problematic as Puccini’s Turandot and Madama Butterfly. Andrei Serban’s 1984 production of the former is set to be retired after next season, but Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s Butterfly flutters on, although every aspect of their staging has been scrutinised in a year-long consultation leading up to this earnest revival. 

Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San) and the Royal Opera Chorus
© ROH | Yasuko Kageyama

Butterfly is a brutal story, although Puccini at least ensured that Pinkerton, a US naval officer who abandons his 15-year old Japanese geisha for “a real American bride”, is seen as the villain of the piece. Puccini even composed an arioso of remorse (“Addio, fiorito asil”) when revising the opera to appease his tenors. Musically, the opera is glorious and, staged well, it can be unbearably moving. It would be tragic if Butterfly was wiped from operatic stages and condemned to a lifetime of concert performances, so The Royal Opera’s efforts in this respect are welcome. 

Jeremy White (The Bonze)
© ROH | Yasuko Kageyama

Working with a team including experts on Japanese movement and design, revival director Dan Dooner (in contact with the original directors) has made sensitive changes to the production. Some are less obvious to western eyes – gestures, such as Suzuki’s left hand always settling on top of her right – while others are more eye-catching. The white-powdered face make-up for Cio-Cio-San and her relatives has gone, as have the Bonze’s painted eyebrows and wispy beard. Goro, the marriage-broker, is much less of a caricature than usual (and excellently sung by tenor Alexander Kravets). 

Casting itself is a thorny issue. Consider the case of the excellent Japanese soprano Yoko Watanabe, whose only appearances decades ago at Covent Garden were as Liù (in Turandot, which isn’t even set in Japan) and Cio-Cio-San, an example of lazy typecasting that is detrimental to singers’ careers. Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura sings the role four times during this run, but the other performances, including opening night, are sung by Armenian lirico-spinto soprano Lianna Haroutounian.

Lucas Meachem (Sharpless) and Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San)
© ROH | Yasuko Kageyama

Musically and dramatically, though, this felt like a tame performance, nowhere near as searing as the production’s last outing five years ago. Haroutounian does not have the dramatic abilities of Ermonela Jaho and her Cio-Cio-San was tender, with a beautifully shaped “Un bel dì” aria, but rarely tugged the heartstrings. She was at her most moving in the letter-reading scene with Lucas Meachem’s dependable Sharpless, her interruptions and childlike prattle revealing her devout belief that Pinkerton will return. Her Cio-Cio-San always had quiet dignity. 

Kseniia Nikolaieva (Suzuki), Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San) and Freddie De Tommaso (Pinkerton)
© ROH | Yasuko Kageyama

As Pinkerton, Freddie De Tommaso was in less stentorian voice than his fabulous Cavaradossi that wowed audiences in December. There was elegance in his phrasing and honeyed singing in the love duet, although at its climax a top note failed to “speak”, leaving him open-mouthed but mute. On Pinkerton’s return, “Addio, fiorito asil” was delivered with such emotion that his remorse seemed real. Patricia Bardon’s knowing Suzuki was nicely understated, even if her dark mezzo-soprano seemed underpowered riding Puccini’s luxuriant orchestration. Rachael Lloyd was a sympathetic Kate Pinkerton, Jeremy White an effective Bonze. 

Dan Ettinger conducted a loud, often brash performance that lurched in tempo, suddenly accelerating or hitting the brakes, which seemed to throw his singers off their mark on occasion. The orchestra responded with vigour, the opening string prelude buzzing with tension, the picturesque dawn to Act 3 teeming with colour. A little more musical sensitivity to match the production’s revival wouldn’t have gone amiss.