Most productions of Madama Butterfly – the clue’s in the name – focus on the heroine’s frailty, the realisation of her fear that “in America, they pin butterfly’s wings to a board”. Not so Jiři Herman’s 2016 production for Prague State Opera, revived last night for the opening of the magnificently refurbished State Opera House, which has been closed for three years. Herman and dramaturg Patricie Částková’s Butterfly – or Mrs Pinkerton, as she insists on being called – is a strong noblewoman with a profound set of values, whose only fragility lies in her being utterly and unshakeably deluded by Pinkerton’s blandishments.

Olga Busuoic (Cio Cio San) © Hana Smejkalová
Olga Busuoic (Cio Cio San)
© Hana Smejkalová

It makes for a painfully uncomfortable Act 1, with Václav Sibera gruesomely devoid of morality as the matchmaker Goro contrasting with Peter Berger’s impossibly amiable Pinkerton and the blindness of Olga Busuoic’s sense of honour and self-worth. All the nuances of this are there in the libretto, and Herman brings them through with pin-sharp focus, leaving you with nowhere to hide as you watch the cruelty of what is being done to Cio-Cio-San.

Václav Sibera (Goro), Peter Berger (Pinkerton) © Hana Smejkalová
Václav Sibera (Goro), Peter Berger (Pinkerton)
© Hana Smejkalová

Herman’s staging is filled with more authentic elements of Japanese culture than I have ever seen, from the on-stage onsen in which various characters bathe to Alexandra Grusková’s gorgeous Japanese costumes to a music-playing geisha to fan dances and parts of the tea ceremony. With the Americans in modern dress, the sense of injustice is maximised, as well as the sense that it could happen today, in a poorer country. The staging isn’t perfect: there’s often too much clutter on the stage; opening and closing videos are beautifully conceived (cherry blossom scattering to open, then Hiroshige’s tsunami breaking over Butterfly to close) but grainy and dim by modern standards; there’s an awkward conceit of showing Butterfly’s son as a fully grown young man who has probably slit his wrists in the onsen by the time of Butterfly’s suicide (another conceit, having Kate Pinkerton permanently onstage, placing her as the centre of the tragedy, works better).

Olga Busuoic (Cio Cio San), Štěpánka Pučálková (Suzuki) © Hana Smejkalová
Olga Busuoic (Cio Cio San), Štěpánka Pučálková (Suzuki)
© Hana Smejkalová

Busuoic gives us a superb characterisation of Cio-Cio-San: adoring and lovable with Pinkerton in Act 1, nobly steadfast in Act 2 (and then dismissively flirtatious with Prince Yamadori), her transition from euphoria to despair in Act 3 utterly believable. Warmth, intonation and phrasing were all good, although a few more consonants would have been welcome. There was also a disconnect between her and conductor Vincenzo Milletarì. With both soprano and orchestra at fortissimo, there were no problems of balance: Busuoic has the power to rise above the orchestra. But when she sung at piano or pianissimo, Milletarì simply didn’t take the level down enough, so she was often submerged. Pavol Remenár’s Sharpless was also frequently inaudible under the orchestral wash, in contrast to Miloš Horák’s Bonze, who gave it all in his short denunciation scene and shook the house with his power. Peter Berger has an open warmth and charm to his tenor which made him an excellent Pinkerton: one could utterly believe in him as an honest lover, in spite of the fact that at the start of the act, he has already announced to anyone who will listen that he has no such intentions.

The refurbished State Opera House © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
The refurbished State Opera House
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

This isn’t a perfect production by any means, the poor balance between orchestra and singers being the thing that causes most damage. But it’s highly impressive as an exposition of the tragedy in the work in all its gory details; it’s also impressive in placing it in an authentically Japanese context. With two excellent performances in the leading roles, it’s well worth a visit to the renewed splendour of the State Opera House.

***11