It's easy to get sucked into the sentimentality of Madama Butterfly. Puccini's luscious score, infused with Japanese pastel colours, showers the audience in orchestral cherry blossom and the story of Cio-Cio-San's blind devotion to the man who's abandoned her is a real tear-jerker. But the plot is deeply troubling and Annilese Miskimmon, in Glyndebourne Festival Opera's first production, doesn't pull her punches. When given its initial outing on the 2016 tour, I found it provocative, in a good way, but her vision didn't always seem coherent. These problems have only partially been ironed out.

Olga Busuioc (Cio-Cio San) © Robbie Jack
Olga Busuioc (Cio-Cio San)
© Robbie Jack

Miskimmon relocates the action to the 1950s, with American naval officers queueing up to buy young – very young – Japanese brides. By transplanting the action in Act 1 from the shoji screens and sliding doors of the house Pinkerton purchases on a 999-year lease to Goro's seedy marriage bureau in downtown Nagasaki – nestling next door to a tattoo parlour – Miskimmon underlines the cynical nature of the transaction. Reluctant brides shuffle along the wedding conveyer belt, coldly showered in a single handful of confetti as the photographer documents the moment.

And yet the Pathé newsreel screened (twice) paints a different story: Japanese brides being taken back to the States, learning to be all-American housewives. Is this the dream that Butterfly buys into, for which she abandons her family's religion? She's certainly the only bride entering into the contract willingly. But does Pinkerton ever intend taking her back home? Not likely. The love duet here, despite the temporary opening out of the latticework trees from the office walls to reveal starry skies, ends with the newlyweds taking their leave while Goro counts his cash.

Olga Busuioc (Cio-Cio San) and Joshua Guerrero (Pinkerton) © Robbie Jack
Olga Busuioc (Cio-Cio San) and Joshua Guerrero (Pinkerton)
© Robbie Jack

There has been some tweaking to Act 2. Butterfly and Suzuki now use a Stars and Stripes flag to catch the blossom that intermittently flutters down for their Flower Duet (rather than Suzuki having to dash off set to gather it) and the death scene is better handled, but Cio-Cio San still appears too westernised and posturing – blowing cigarette smoke into Yamadori's eyes, browsing Life magazine and staying up to watch TV – for an 18-year old still naïve about American customs.

Omer Meir Wellber led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a magnificent account of Puccini's score, from the scurrying strings in the prelude to the spitting cobra col legno attacks as Cio-Cio San's suicide is interrupted by the sudden appearance of her son. Wellber was unafraid to let the orchestra off the leash, flooding the house with vibrant tone. The Humming Chorus, singers flanking the Stalls, was beautifully tender, evoking a tear or two around me.

Olga Busuioc (Cio-Cio San) © Robbie Jack
Olga Busuioc (Cio-Cio San)
© Robbie Jack

In truth, the singing was mixed. Moldovan soprano Olga Busuioc, a pupil of Mirella Freni, has an ample enough tone for the demanding title role, but her intonation was a little wild in Act 1. However, she gave a strong “Un bel dí” after the long supper interval and grew in dramatic poise as the evening progressed. Pinkerton's hardly a charmer, but Puccini gives him some gorgeous music. Joshua Guerrero' tenor felt underpowered though, with a slight yelp at the top, and was occasionally short-breathed in “Addio, fiorito asil”. Carlo Bosi was a stentorian Goro, but Michael Sumuel was miscast as Sharpless. A bass-baritone singing a baritone role is fine if the singer can reach the upper notes, but the American was found wanting, despite his sympathetic portrayal of the US consul. 

Olga Busuioc (Cio-Cio San) © Robbie Jack
Olga Busuioc (Cio-Cio San)
© Robbie Jack

By far, the best performance of the evening came from Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki, her plummy tones and cavernous chest register making a strong aural impact, her acting oozing sincerity from every pore. Oddly, for me, it was her little trio with Sharpless and Pinkerton that finally drew tears, as they prepare to break the devastating news to Butterfly that Pinkerton has come to take his son back home with his all-American wife. But then, regardless of the production, when it comes to Butterfly surely tears are inevitable sooner or later?

***11