The title role in one of the most popular and frequently performed operas, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, is a headache to cast. The down-on-her-luck geisha of Act I, naïvely ecstatic about marrying an American sailor, is best voiced by a mellow-toned lyric soprano. The role gets heavier as the caddish Pinkerton abandons what he sees as his disposable Japanese wife. By the time Cio-Cio-San is constrained to give up her son to Pinkerton and his permanent American wife, she requires heavy spinto tonnage. Singers of both vocal types have been successful in the role: lyric sopranos by taking their vocal mettle to the limit and spintos by taming their larger instruments with a degree of softness. A live performance almost always involves a trade-off. Dutch soprano Annemarie Kremer is a spinto who has sung such heavy-weight roles as Norma and Salome. She has also starred in several productions of Madama Butterfly. Her performance with the Nederlandse Reisopera was intensely dramatic and devoid of sweetness.

Annemarie Kremer (Cio-Cio-San) and Robert Burt (Goro) © Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera
Annemarie Kremer (Cio-Cio-San) and Robert Burt (Goro)
© Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera

Ms Kremer's greatest assets are an interestingly opaque middle register and an arresting top. Although she easily soared to the high D flat at the end of the entrance music, the voice was not as malleable elsewhere, making her Butterfly charmingly headstrong but vocally stridulant at times. Her voice sounded happiest either below or above the register break. Tonal unevenness on the ascent compromised her two big arias, the hope-against-hope “Un bel dì, vedremo” and “Tu, tu piccolo Iddio”, Butterfly’s farewell to her son before she commits honour suicide. Her total immersion in the character, however, was fascinating to watch. When the best of her singing and acting intersected, she was riveting, such as when Butterfly imagines having to go back to entertaining men if Pinkerton never returned. The way Ms Kremer performed stilted dance movements with dead eyes conveyed just how horrific this prospect is for her.

Timothy Henty’s conducting was more effective in the dramatic peaks than, for instance, in weaving the delicate fabric of the Humming Chorus. The combining of Het Gelders Orkest with HET Symfonieorkest put Puccini-strength forces at his disposal, which he deployed deftly in the portentous Act III Intermezzo and the crushing finale. Despite some beautiful playing in lyrical passages, the composer's atmospheric twining of orchestral solos and sections remained unelucidated. The love duet assumed unsuitable Wagnerian proportions, although the singers had a hand in this as well.

Qiu Lin Zhang (Suzuki) and Annemarie Kremer (Cio-Cio-San) © Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera
Qiu Lin Zhang (Suzuki) and Annemarie Kremer (Cio-Cio-San)
© Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera

Director Laurence Dale’s sensitive approach to the drama went a long way to balance the musical forcefulness. By dressing Sharpless, the American Consul, in a suit with subtle Japanese tailoring, he suggested his affinity with the local culture, pitting it against Pinkerton's Orientalist rapaciousness. The richly lit set, a rotating rock shaped like a ship's prow, sometimes coerced repetitive blocking, but was a telling symbol of Butterfly's lonely hilltop existence, and her fixation on spying Pinkerton's ship. The bare-bones scenography had an austere beauty, which could have been enhanced by more effusive use of props and colour. The frigid wind blowing away all the petals after Butterfly and her maid Suzuki strip the garden to decorate the house would have been even more chilling with a thicker petal carpet, for example.

Mr Dale evidently worked extensively on characterisation with the soloists, as well as with the polished Consensus Vocalis, graceful in flowing pastels. Darren Jeffery’s uncle-priest was duly terrifying as he proclaimed Cio-Cio-San a pariah because of her conversion to Christianity. Robert Burt was inflection- and gesture-perfect as the abhorrent marriage broker, Goro.

Annemarie Kremer (Cio-Cio-San) © Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera
Annemarie Kremer (Cio-Cio-San)
© Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera

Without proper rehearsal, Bruno Ribeiro, the second replacement of the originally listed Pinkerton, looked understandably ill-at-ease most of the time. Vocally, practically all his top notes hit the mark, with a boldness matching the character. His darkish middle voice, however, was too monochrome to suggest the erotic allure he exerts on Butterfly. Qiu Lin Zhang and Roderick Williams as, respectively, Suzuki and Sharpless, stood out by virtue of their vocal accomplishment and sympathetic portrayal. Ms Zhang's luxurious, dark purple contralto elevated Suzuki into a heroic figure, enduring with dignity and devotion. Mr Williams, with his cultivated, controlled baritone, was a principled, kindly exasperated Sharpless. Their performances tapped into the vein of tenderness with which Puccini scored the fate of his brave heroine. During the curtain call the Rotterdam audience showed them it had taken notice.