Ermonela Jaho sure likes to put herself (and us) through the emotional wringer on Covent Garden's stage. Her characters usually meet with a sticky end: Violetta and Mimì both succumb to tuberculosis; a delirious Manon expires in Des Grieux's arms before she even gets deported; Suor Angelica takes poison when she discovers the child she was forced to give up has died. Only Magda in La rondine makes it to the curtain alive (but having abandoned her lover). This time, London finally got to see her as another tragic Puccini heroine: Madama Butterfly.

Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

It was never going to end well, either for me or for Butterfly. A Yankee naval lieutenant purchases a house in Nagasaki and buys himself a 15-year old wife. He has no intention of staying with her; she's merely a plaything, a distraction until such time as he marries “a real American bride”. Pinkerton is a cad and we despise him for it, even if Puccini softens his character in Act 2 with an aria of regret when he returns to take custody of his son. What is left for his (still) teen bride but suicide?

Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Jaho doesn't just sing Butterfly. She becomes Butterfly. From the moment she appeared before the candyfloss-pink backdrop draped behind the Ikea-chic construction in Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's reliable staging, we believed in her character. With swift, shuffling footsteps, coy hand gestures and bashful eyes, she was the 15-year old bride. Jaho lightened her soprano to a wisp, on the very cusp of fragility. Her love duet with Pinkerton was so rapt that – even though we knew the eventual outcome – we dared to hope it would turn out differently this time. In Act 2, her performance was unsettling, simply because she was so unswervingly sure that Pinkerton would return. “Un bel dì” was begun on the merest thread of sound, blossoming into a beautifully even, tenderly sung account where every phrase was thoughtfully coloured. The usual moments pole-axed me: the horror when Sharpless dares to ask what Cio-Cio San would do if Pinkerton never returned; her bringing in her son; and inevitably, her suicide, played out here before a giant branch which sheds its cherry blossom on cue as she expires, kimono flapping like a butterfly with broken wings. Devastating.

Carlo Bosi (Goro) and Elizabeth DeShong (Suzuki) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Carlo Bosi (Goro) and Elizabeth DeShong (Suzuki)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Elizabeth DeShong, making her Royal Opera debut, was a terrific Suzuki, her ripe, plum-toned mezzo fabulously dark in its lowest register. She turned on Carlo Bosi's wheedling marriage-broker with real venom and the Flower Duet with Jaho was beyond sublime. Unfortunately, the principal men in this revival were disappointing. Marcelo Puente's woolly vibrato didn't make for a vocally attractive Pinkerton, and Scott Hendricks' Sharpless was grey-toned, if sympathetically acted. In the minor roles, Yuriy Yurchuk was a stately Yamadori – the prince offering Cio-Cio San a way out – and Jeremy White reprised his splenetic Bonze with vigour.

Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San) and Scott Hendricks (Sharpless) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San) and Scott Hendricks (Sharpless)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Sir Antonio Pappano conjured miracles from the Covent Garden pit. Even the ROH brass was on its best behaviour in a tingling orchestral account. It's a blessing to have heard, in a single season, the world's two finest Puccini conductors (the other being Riccardo Chailly at La Scala) take the helm for this exquisite score.

I fear any remaining tickets for this run (at least with Jaho as Butterfly) will be like gold dust, but Thursday's performance (30th March) is being broadcast live into cinemas if you want to net the greatest performance of the title role I've yet witnessed.