Madama Butterfly is indestructible. The revisions – it took five versions to arrive at the standard one usually heard today – tightened the structure to focus unpityingly on the tragedy of the 15-year old Cio-Cio-San. Its setting rarely benefits from updating or attempts to point up some obvious ‘modernity’. You want imperial bullying, the patronising of ‘quaint’ native local customs, pressure to abandon Eastern religion for a Western one, paedophilia, sex tourism, ruthless exploitation of female vulnerability by male dominated cultures? It’s all there in the libretto and score. If it was premiered today, in the #Metoo era, there would be an outcry. But in the high culture setting of an opera festival, we can be invited to witness the destruction of an innocent young person, and to the most glorious music. (Only Billy Budd has approached it since in this respect). The task of any production is to show us clearly what the text both says and implies, and Puccini’s music will do the rest. This is exactly what happens in Savonlinna’s very fine production.

The setting is traditional, Japan at the turn of the last century. So at the beginning we get a small home with sliding thin walls, encouraging Pinkerton’s sly observation that the “monthly renewable 999-year” marriages here are flexible just like the houses. No need to show a distant prospect of Nagasaki harbour, as real seagulls can be heard occasionally just beyond the high walls of the covered courtyard performance space of the water-girt Olavinlinna Castle. How do you make this large space, ideal for Tristan’s neglected Kareol or Bluebeard’s sepulchral home, into an arcadian Asiatic hilltop? The lighting is subtly evocative, and the very wide stage has its middle third or so filled with Butterfly’s new home, leased with Pinkerton’s US dollars for the purpose of “pleasure” ahead of the day he marries a “real American wife”. 

The levels and entrances the castle wall offers are used very effectively, not least by about 20 black-clad masked figures who assist the setting at various points, bringing in red lanterns for the love duet, and white ones for the Humming Chorus, which can rarely have ever been more evocatively set. These sinister extras also act as a silent ‘Greek chorus’ reacting to the action at certain points, eventually prostrating themselves at Butterfly’s suicide. Perhaps they are harbingers of death as well – it is difficult not to think of Isis when they first appear. Otherwise costumes are the conventions of the place and time, though it is a nice touch that Cio-Cio-San – or “Mrs B.F. Pinkerton” as she heartbreakingly insists – becomes a little more American in her dress once married and in possession of an “American home”.

The cast for this revival is a fine one. The Pinkerton of Gaston Rivero makes a noble sound for such an ignoble figure, his ringing head notes helped by the spacious reverberance of the acoustic. He was powerfully ardent in the love duet, impatient to enjoy his purchase, although he attempted little softer singing, which must be a challenge in this space. His long-breathed final “Addio, mio fiorito asil”, a late addition by the composer to make Pinkerton less of a swine, had the usual effect of making him a self-pitying swine – fine singing is not always a route to sympathy in opera! Sharpless was Claudio Otelli, who acted and sang impressively as the moral compass Pinkerton ignores, and Mareike Yankowski’s Suzuki, although she has no more luck getting Butterfly to see sense, sounded an ideal soulmate, blending well with her mistress in the flower duet. 

But casting must always be strongest in the title role, and this performance was a triumph for Sae-Kyung Rim. Fragile enough to pass for the 15-year old of Act 1, she grows in stature to embrace self-sacrifice rather than endure dishonour – this role requires, and Rim’s performance delivers, a convincing passage from childish naivety to a tragic acceptance that shames all those who would have shamed her. There is a reason that Butterfly has the highest blub factor in the repertory, for it is not only for Cio-Cio-San that we weep, but for ourselves. Rim is a real spinto - those two top Ds at the climax of “Un bel dì” had no problem soaring above the theme’s towering ff recapitulation by the orchestra. For once this most famous of Puccini soprano arias actually deserved to stop the show, which it duly did.

Not only then, but throughout, the orchestra sounded like veterans of the opera house, and the chorus is of similar calibre. Kalle Kuusava is the latest conductor from Helsinki’s extraordinary Sibelius Academy production line, and his command and commitment here was worthy of his famous predecessors.


Roy's press trip was funded by Savonlinna Opera