How picturesque do you like your Puccini? Do you take your Turandot sweet or sour? How much lacquer is layered over your ideal Madama Butterfly? If you imagine a backdrop of Nagasaki Harbour for the latter, strewn with cherry blossoms and bejewelled with Japonaiserie, then Annilese Miskimmon's new production may come as a shabby little shocker to your sensibilities. This is the first time Glyndebourne has mounted Butterfly, and if the opera isn't quite pinned down, it's a thoughtful, provocative staging, given in a musically satisfying performance.

Matteo Lippi (Pinkerton) and Alun Rhys-Jenkins (Goro) © Clive Barda
Matteo Lippi (Pinkerton) and Alun Rhys-Jenkins (Goro)
© Clive Barda

Miskimmon relocates both time and place. The action is updated to the 1950s with Act I taking place not in the folding paper house Lieutenant Pinkerton has purchased on a 999-year lease, but in Goro's marriage bureau. We're in seedy downtown Nagasaki, beside a tattoo parlour, and during the prelude, Goro ushers through nuptials of several US naval officers to young Japanese brides. A film reel displays the options. The men don't take it seriously, not least Pinkerton, casually putting his feet up on Goro's desk. It's an amusement, a navy lark. But the marriage production line, celebrated with cold showers of confetti, emphasises the cynical nastiness, especially when the brides are obviously so young. Korean soprano Karah Son passes more convincingly for fifteen than most sopranos, a girlish Cio-Cio San, her giggling friends wearing school berets and clutching bouquets of blossoms. Miskimmon isn't sugaring any pills here. During the love duet, a Pathé newsreel showing Japanese war brides in the early 1950s struck me as a miscalculation: Pinkerton never has any intention that his bride will ever see the Statue of Liberty.

Karah Son (Cio-Cio San) and Matteo Lippi (Pinkerton) © Clive Barda
Karah Son (Cio-Cio San) and Matteo Lippi (Pinkerton)
© Clive Barda

The walls of Nicky Shaw's set threaten to open up during the love duet, but we're denied any romantic climax, the duet ending not with Pinkerton and Butterfly bathed in starlight, but with Goro, lasciviously counting his profits.

Miskimmon plays Act II more conventionally. The walls have fully opened out to leave the tracery of lacquered trees from Goro's office framing the stage. We are just outside Pinkerton's house, but the garden is bare, meaning Suzuki – the excellent Claudia Huckle – has to head off-stage to collect blossom for the flower duet. It is strewn very effectively though, collected in the Stars and Stripes and scattered across the stage, Butterfly and her maid billowing the flag as Sorrow races beneath it – a striking stage picture. However, post-Intermezzo we're suddenly inside, which means that Butterfly seems to head outside to commit jigai. Having used silhouette effectively earlier, it felt a missed opportunity here, with Butterfly staggering back on-stage to die, but the closing image of her son playing with his warship, oblivious to his mother's death, was powerful.

Rupert Wade (Sorrow), Karah Son (Cio-Cio San) and Claudia Huckle (Suzuki) © Clive Barda
Rupert Wade (Sorrow), Karah Son (Cio-Cio San) and Claudia Huckle (Suzuki)
© Clive Barda

Karah Son and Matteo Lippi both sounded a little lightweight in the leading roles. Son's lyric soprano was better suited to the love duet than the heftier challenge of “Un bel dì”, sung not to Suzuki, but to a bare stage. She is a deeply affecting actress, however, bringing great dignity to her final scene. Lippi is a pleasant lyric tenor, without an especially Italianate ring, but phrases intelligently. Francesco Verna, sometimes beset by a woolly vibrato, makes for an exasperated, crumpled Sharpless, his attempted letter-reading to Butterfly one of the more emotional moments in what is a pretty dry-eyed staging. Huckle's plum-toned Suzuki is silky and warm, adopting western clothes just as her mistress does for Act II. Alun Rhys-Jenkins's Goro and Marta Fontanals-Simmons' chilly Kate Pinkerton are among the better-taken minor roles.

Karah Son (Cio-Cio San) © Clive Barda
Karah Son (Cio-Cio San)
© Clive Barda

John Wilson, making his Glyndebourne debut, conducted a clean, lithe account, without wringing excess emotion out of Puccini's score, which rather matches Miskimmon's vision. He sensitively reined in Glyndebourne's touring orchestra when required, but I couldn't help wishing for a little more saturated fat from the strings. The Intermezzo, however, teemed with woodwind colour.

A moving Butterfly? Not especially, but Miskimmon's focus on the darker side brings the story into more painful focus than usual.