What makes this otherwise routine revival of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s eight year old production an absolute must-see is the sensational Royal Opera House debut of Kristine Opolais in the title role. She is a statuesque Latvian blonde, barely transformed by her dark wig and geisha makeup. Yet she convinces utterly as the fifteen year old Japanese bride bought by an American naval officer then cruelly abandoned.

Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San, Zhengzhong Zhou as Yamadori © Mike Hoban 2011
Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San, Zhengzhong Zhou as Yamadori
© Mike Hoban 2011

Unlike many famous exponents of the role, her soprano is not as delicate as cherry blossom or as pure as the snows of Mount Fuji - more like the hard steel edge of a samurai sword. Yet all of Butterfly's iron resolve is embodied in Opolais's flinty tones. A tougher character than the 'plaything' the faithless Lt Pinkerton describes, she has the fortitude to wait three years for his return and the courage to kill herself as he departs for good. The tragedy of this Butterfly is not that her tiny child is taken away by Pinkerton and his new wife, but that her own dreams are crushed. Even a cheesy, stagey death scene with kimono sleeves flapping like butterfly wings can't detract from a magnificent debut.

The ending aside, one thing this production can't be accused of is fussy visual detail. With little but designer Christian Fenouillat's authentically minimal expanses of tatami and shoji to distract the eye, the cast have to work extra-hard to hold audience attention.

American tenor James Valenti is a tall, dark and handsome Pinkerton who certainly looks the part. His voice though is disappointingly small in scale, and the constricted 'money notes' at the top of his range were more like short change. Anthony Michaels-Moore as the worldly-wise consul Sharpless and Helene Schneiderman as Butterfly's solicitous maid Suzuki offered far better value. Veteran character singers Robin Leggate as the venal marriage broker Goro and Jeremy White as Butterfly's disapproving uncle the Bonze lent traditionally-costumed colour. But for many I expect the vocal highlight will be the famous 'Humming Chorus', delivered expertly from offstage by the Royal Opera House Chorus.

It's not often that the leading soprano is conducted by her own husband, but that's the case here, as 'Mr Opolais', better known as Andris Nelsons, leads the orchestra. He's young by conductor standards, but the sound he gets from the Royal Opera House Orchestra is mature and polished, perfectly calibrated to mould the story and show off the singers at their best. It was just a pity they couldn't play loudly enough to mask the noisy whirring motors that raised and lowered the set's blinds.

Note that Kristine Opolais only sings the lead role on 25 and 29 June and 2 and 4 July. Chinese-born Canadian soprano Liping Zhang takes over on 8, 12 and 15 July and Italian soprano Amarilli Nizza on 16 July.