Madama Butterfly is Target #1 among cancel culturalists who only sanction productions in which Japanese characters are sung by Japanese singers, a dogma that may well consign it to oblivion (notwithstanding the manifestly counterfeit fragrances of Puccini’s score) unless alternative approaches are found. Director Lindy Hume has come up with one such solution for Welsh National Opera and it works reasonably well in allowing the story to be told with sufficient emotional weight. She describes it, archly, as “a corner of a recognisable yet dystopic near-future corner of our own society” where rich executives can buy the bodies of young girls to gratify their urges. To my eyes it is, rather, a neutral space wherein the themes of the opera are able to cut through on their own terms, and designer Isabella Bywater has delivered a handsome revolving set that accommodates the narrative.

Joyce El-Khoury (Cio-Cio-san) and Leonardo Caimi (Pinkerton)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Where selfishness devours innocence there’s little chance of a happy outcome no matter how you dress it up. When young Butterfly is caught in Lieutenant Pinkerton’s net, prettily pinned like a trophy and then forgotten, her ethnicity is a side issue.

Cio-Cio-san and her companion Suzuki live in a cramped modern apartment that’s both abstract and detailed, the latter when laundry is strewn across the floor, or when the child Sorrow (present throughout the second act) draws graffiti on the walls. There is a shower room upstairs whose significance becomes clear late on. At the first of WNO’s Bristol tour dates, the 15-year-old bride was sung by Joyce El-Khoury, an artist at the peak of her powers whose aromatic soprano delivered a proper Puccini-sized delight. If only the same could be said for the pornographic wedding dress she was obliged to wear in Act 1.

Joyce El-Khoury (Cio-Cio-san) and WNO Chorus
© Richard Hubert Smith

As Pinkerton, Leonardo Caimi had an Italianate timbre befitting his nationality and his silky seduction was persuasive both to his child bride and to Bristol’s small but appreciative audience. His eventual remorse was particularly well realised. There were outstanding performances in secondary roles too, especially from Mark Stone as a troubled Sharpless and Anna Harvey as a loyal yet self-aware Suzuki, but with powerful cameos from the likes of Tom Randle (a wheeler-dealing Goro) and Neil Balfour (a grungy, sullen Prince Yamadori) there was no discernible weak link anywhere in this, the first of two alternating casts.

The WNO Chorus sang divinely during its occasional but crucial moments in the sun and the WNO Orchestra, conducted from memory by its illustrious Conductor Laureate Carlo Rizzi, did an outstanding job of adjusting its balance to the requirements of Bristol Hippodrome’s pit-less forestage. 

Joyce El-Khoury (Cio-Cio-san) and Anna Harvey (Suzuki)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Inevitably, the production’s main talking point has been its unspecific staging, and it's true that the bleached-out stage ironically reflects the ethnically cleansed scenario; but at least Hume has respected the emotional progression of Puccini’s score. Nothing she has done jars and most of it works. That sounds like faint praise, but it isn’t; for, contrary to many operatic relocations, here the scenario is left free to flourish on its own morally appalling terms. 

****1