When the Intendant of an opera house appears in front of the curtain before a performance is it rarely to convey good news. The usual bad tidings are that a much anticipated star singer has cancelled due to indisposition. On Thursday at the Vienna State Opera the news was much worse. Director Dominique Meyer announced that one of the company’s most important heldentenors Johan Botha had died that morning at the age of 51 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Botha had sung over 200 performances in the Haus am Ring including a remarkable eight premières. Ironically, one of his first major roles in Europe was Pinkerton in Paris in 1993. His large shoes will be hard to fill.

The production of Puccini’s oriental odyssey by Josef Gielen, with set designs by Tsugouharu Foujita, was first seen in Vienna in 1957 so no one in the cast was even born when it debuted. Apart from the interior of Butterfly’s “casa Americana” looking a tad faded, this was the pre-Kupfer era when stage designs actually looked as the composer described. A huge painted backdrop showed a pretty post-card Nagasaki harbour with blossom trees in the foreground with a real bridge providing access for the fickle relatives attending Butterfly’s wedding. 

The singing was on the whole acceptable without being exceptional. Considering the range of options from the Staatsoper ensemble, the casting of Hans Peter Kammerer as the Imperial Commissioner was curious. There was minimal projection and intonation was at best proximate. Similarly, as the ultimate party-spoiler uncle Bonze, Alexandru Moisiuc’s impuissant declamations were nowhere as impressive as his imposing physical appearance. Much more successful was the Goro of veteran character tenor Herwig Pecoraro. Playing an obsequious, snivelling, on-the-take marriage-broker, Pecoraro resembled Mr Haney in the old Green Acres TV series. Vocally the voice is still in fine shape with a ringing top and exemplary diction. Another Staatsoper ensemble member Boaz Daniel was a sympathetic Sharpless with firm top G flats and an overall solid upper register. An especially smooth cantilena made the short “Io so che alle sue pene” trio with Pinkerton and Suzuki in Act III especially moving. Only his lower register lacked optimal projection. Making her Staatsoper debut, South African mezzo Bongiwe Nakani sang a compassionate Suzuki with a particularly impressive low register and chest notes. Although slightly tentative in Act I, “Come una mosca prigioniera” was movingly phrased and the “Flower duet” with Butterfly produced an excellent parity of vocal tone colour.

Italian tenor Piero Pretti was making his Staatsoper role debut as Pinkerton and whilst the voice is technically sound, it is definitely on the small side and his acting ability rather bland. Admittedly the character is anything but likeable, but he should show real penitence and “Mi struggo dal rimorso” was not particularly convincing. On the other hand, “Addio, fiorito asil” was redeemed by some sensitive legato phrasing. Pretti opted for the unison top C on “ridi il ciel” at the end of the Act I duet which was pleasingly pingy and refulgent. 

Butterfly is not a role for the faint-hearted (even the great Mirella Freni never sang it on stage) and glamourous Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais brought intelligence and an impressive vocal technique to this difficult part. She has already sung Cio-Cio-San at the Met, Munich and Covent Garden and The Telegraph described her as “the leading Puccini soprano of today”. This may be slightly hyperbolic but there was exceptional subtlety in this well thought-out characterization. The innocence with which Butterfly asks Sharpless when robins build their nests in America was touching. Although physically fragile, Butterfly is definitely no (to use the gender-erroneous American parlance) “bimbo” having at the outset observed that “No one ever admits he was born in poverty” and several times politely but firmly correcting those who refer to her as “Madama Butterfly” instead of “Madama Pinkerton”.

Vocally there was much to savour in Opolais’ interpretation with several well executed high notes such as the piano top D flat on “Amor” at the conclusion to the “ancora un passo” chorus. The mezza-voce was consistently impressive. “Un bel dì” was memorable for its quiet restraint and extremely delicate  ppp “chi sarà, chi sarà” middle section. The final top B flat on “l’aspetto” was spinto stupendo.

Philippe Auguin’s up and down baton technique brought out some forceful playing from the Staatsoper brass which often overwhelmed many of the singers, although the winds were consistently sensitive to the requisite dynamic markings and phrasing. The introduction to Act III was a real orchestral tour de force with Puccini’s vast palette of instrumental colours revealed with pristine clarity.