It’s dangerous when a production is touted as “revelatory”. We were promised a “haunting psychological rendering” of Madama Butterfly by director Julia Burbach, “radically reframed” and inspired by Japanese folkloric ghost stories. Entering the Arcola Studio to find Natasha Jouhl in blood-spattered white gown, feverishly chalking tallies on the floor, it quickly became obvious we’d be viewing events in flashback. Butterfly beyond the grave: an intriguing proposition, but did it work?

Natasha Jouhl (Cio-Cio San) © Robert Workman
Natasha Jouhl (Cio-Cio San)
© Robert Workman

Puccini’s score was presented straight – no re-ordering or “reframing” here – performed at the piano by Paul Wingfield. Apart from a scrambled opening, it was beautifully played to the extent that I didn’t actually miss the orchestra, which was no mean feat. From the beginning, Butterfly was present, observing events. When her character was meant to be on-stage, she donned a kimono and interacted as usual. Occasionally, Butterfly shed these robes, the lighting changed and other characters held a freeze frame, so that some lines were delivered by Ghost Butterfly.

What did this element add to the story? Where it was most instructive was in the scenes where Butterfly wasn’t meant to be on stage. We registered her look of disgust at Pinkerton’s attitude towards his “marriage” to the fifteen-year old geisha, with the option to annul monthly. During the wedding ceremony, she read the letter from Pinkerton that Sharpless was to bring in Act II. However, scenes became confused, such as when Butterfly’s responses to characters became commentary, the American Consul in Act II interacting with Butterfly’s child between playing musical statues as Ghost Butterfly sang. Burbach’s idea is certainly a novel one. I’m just not sure how revelatory it truly proved.

What was never in doubt is that the production team carried out Burbach’s concept superbly. Naomi Dawson filled the restricted acting space with powerful imagery: paper lanterns, candles, origami birds, a model ship. The singers worked marvels at firing the audience’s imagination: we could “see” Butterfly’s child, even though none was present, and Nagasaki Harbour was evidently just behind me. The truthfulness of the acting was Burbach’s great achievement here. I was drawn into the story, told at such painful proximity, far more than ever before when across the wide expanse of an orchestra pit.

Natasha Jouhl (Cio-Cio San) © Robert Workman
Natasha Jouhl (Cio-Cio San)
© Robert Workman

Natasha Jouhl was completely inside the role of Butterfly, a terrific feat as she is never off-stage all evening. She is possibly the first soprano I’ve seen tackle the role who could just conceivably pass for fifteen – no audience titters when Butterfly tells Sharpless her age. Vocally, Jouhl had everything the role requires; girlish lightness for Act I, plus even emission and lyric spinto power to cope with the demands of “Un bel dì”. Every look and reaction were loaded with meaning.

The rest of the cast were just as inspired. Ayaka Tanimoto wasn’t your usual Suzuki – no mothering of Butterfly or waspish flying at slippery marriage-broker Goro. Tanimoto was the devoted servant, a portrait of quiet dignity, with a light, pliant mezzo that sounded most beautiful. Thomas Atkins’ tenor had plenty of Italianate “ping”, generous phrasing and disarming charm, which made his Pinkerton almost sympathetic, notably during a genuinely heart-rending “Addio fiorito asil”. Gareth Brynmor John gave a sympathetic portrayal of Sharpless, especially by his haunted look when Sharpless realises exactly what will happen to Butterfly once she agrees to give up her son. Slightly restricted at the top of his baritone range, he nevertheless sang warmly. Christopher Diffey was a fine, oily Goro and Freddie Tong impressed as Butterfly’s outraged uncle, The Bonze.

Even if Burbach’s concept didn’t fully deliver, this Butterfly packed a hefty punch with its musical and dramatic truthfulness.