The clash of two disparate cultures, a sense of First World privilege, sex with a minor? Who would have thought that the same themes of Giacomo Puccini’s tragic 1904 opera Madama Butterfly would make headlines today? Ted Huffman’s new production in Zurich picks up more, however, than topics of contemporary relevance. It dares to stage the opera straightforwardly, without the revolving stage, vinyl costumes, and shrill shock effects so often encountered in modern stagings. Instead, the action is set against a quiet, modest interior that the stagehands successively “construct” as the opera’s first act unfolds.

Svetlana Aksenova (Cio-Cio-San) © Toni Suter | T+T Fotografie
Svetlana Aksenova (Cio-Cio-San)
© Toni Suter | T+T Fotografie

And that makes perfect sense, for in Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica’s libretto, the heartless American naval officer, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, is living in temporary quarters in Nagasaki. Against the cautions of the US Consul, Sharpless, Pinkerton hires a marriage-broker and weds 15-year-old geisha, Cio-Cio-San (“Butterfly”), considering the union nothing more than a fleeting affair. After all, a travelling Yankee who “casts anchor” all over the world, he says, is “not satisfied until he’s gathered all the flowers”. With Sharpless, Pinkerton even raises a whisky glass to the day he will “marry a real American bride”. Once he ships out, however, his loyal Cio-Cio-San spends three years waiting for his return, both to her and to the young son he fathered. When he does return, and she learns that he and his American wife intend to take the boy back to America, Butterfly commits suicide.

Svetlana Aksenova (Cio-Cio-San) and Judith Schmid (Suzuki) © Toni Suter | T+T Fotografie
Svetlana Aksenova (Cio-Cio-San) and Judith Schmid (Suzuki)
© Toni Suter | T+T Fotografie

What ends in tragedy starts in the material stuffs and joy of a great marriage ceremony. In Act 1, the women are dressed in sumptuous, embroidered silk kimonos; there is strong coherence between the fine chorus and soloists; and Butterfly’s choice to revere Pinkerton's gods over her own deities, makes for a dazzling spectacle. In the title role, soprano Svetlana Aksenova’s broad vocal range was complemented by consummate acting skills. “Love me a little, like a child, as I deserve” she tells her groom, as they celebrate the “celestial joy”. Granted in what was otherwise a seamlessly tender and erotic scene, the Russian soprano fussed a little too much over her unwieldy sleeves. And I’d have liked a 15-year-old’s more innocent voice in Act 1 to contrast with that of a more mature Butterfly in Act 2. Those shortcomings aside, Aksenova’s was a fine performance. Tenor Saimir Pirgu also gave a solid debut as the infamous Pinkerton, playing the remorse card far more convincingly in Act 2 than I’ve seen it shown before. Regardless, the character’s actions would earn considerable news coverage today.  

Saimir Pirgu (Pinkerton) © Toni Suter | T+T Fotografie
Saimir Pirgu (Pinkerton)
© Toni Suter | T+T Fotografie

As Goro, the ambitious marriage-broker, Martin Zysset gave a perfect mix of the convivial and money-minded, two attributes that his job demands. As Suzuki, Butterfly’s loving maid, childminder and confidante, Judith Schmid showed compassion for her dear mistress, then reviled at Pinkerton’s deviousness. The mild degree of unevenness in her middle voice, owing to a cold, did the accomplished singer no disservice.

For me, however, the evening’s strongest performance was Brian Mulligan’s Sharpless, who cautions the headstrong and irreverent Pinkerton that it is a “great sin to … break a trusting heart”. Sharpless is moral standard, cultural interface and master of diplomacy all in one – an easy fellow to like anyway – but Mulligan sang the role with authority and bravado.

Brian Mulligan (Sharpless), Svetlana Aksenova (Cio-Cio-San) and Judith Schmid (Suzuki) © Toni Suter | T+T Fotografie
Brian Mulligan (Sharpless), Svetlana Aksenova (Cio-Cio-San) and Judith Schmid (Suzuki)
© Toni Suter | T+T Fotografie

Accolades also go to stage designer Michael Levine, whose deference to simplicity was like that of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The use of a single Japanese screen set off against Butterfly’s intimate profession of love, for example, made a single, clean line of gold behind her on an otherwise sparingly-outfitted stage. Further, Franck Evin’s lighting design was superb. Twice in this production, Butterfly stands alone and far forward centre stage, like a figurehead on a ship’s prow: once, with a telescope to search for her husband’s ship, then again while she waits through the night to greet him after his three-year absence. For that, the soft ambient light changed from the slate blue of evening to the pinks of dawn, making the sequence unforgettable. 

What’s more, Puccini’s sublime score assured the stage great colour throughout. The Philharmonia Zürich under Daniele Rustioni’s baton sometimes overpowered the soloists in volume, but were spot on in their parts, and duly pulled on the heart strings where required. Rustioni showed himself a high-spirited, convivial conductor, whose rapport with the whole company seemed infectious. I liked that, since from where I sat in the house, I could see little more than an occasional swathe of his baton. But I did catch one marvellous cue to Aksenova for one very high note: he pointed his index finger straight upwards, just like a Roman emperor.