According to the programme, this production of Madama Butterfly is nearly 40 years old, a time of life at which most things, if not people, are automatically labelled 'venerable'. The late Joachim Herz carefully put together his own version of Puccini's troubled tragedia giapponese based on the composer's three separate attempts to make his opera work, in collaboration with WNO's then-chorus master, Julian Smith. Nevertheless, Herz's mise en scène remains impeccably respectful to music, story and characterisation and if it is short on striking stage images – the only one that burns itself into the mind is that of Butterfly and Suzuki framed in silhouette behind the slatted walls of their home, awaiting Pinkerton's return – designer Reinhart Zimmerman's sepia-toned set and authentic period costumes have worn well.

Karah Son (Cio-Cio San), Leo Adams (Dolore) and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Suzuki) © Jeremy Abrahams
Karah Son (Cio-Cio San), Leo Adams (Dolore) and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Suzuki)
© Jeremy Abrahams

Musically and dramatically, things were less assured: Jonathan Burton gave Pinkerton the requisite bounce and swagger but too often his acting was generalised, lacking in specific choices (he seemed almost indifferent to his bride at the end of Act 1). Admittedly, Puccini set his tenor an almost impossible task, given the unsympathetic nature of the character, but more could have been done here. Karah Son's Cio-Cio San recovered after a somehwat effortful opening, but never sounded entirely at ease with moments of marvellous pure tone balanced by others of strain. There was something missing from the character here, too: once again, Puccini and his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa were asking for the moon, in demanding a journey from teenage virgin to love sacrifice in the space of two and a half hours of stage time. Ultimately, Son didn't persusade me that she was a different person at the end to the beginning.

Karah Son (Cio-Cio San) and Jonathan Burton (Pinkerton) © Jeremy Abrahams
Karah Son (Cio-Cio San) and Jonathan Burton (Pinkerton)
© Jeremy Abrahams

The supporting cast, though, yielded many pleasures: David Kempster's silver-haired consul Sharpless was a figure of grounded authority, both dramatically and vocally, matched by Rebecca Afonwy-Jones' affectingly loyal Suzuki. Simon Crosby Buttle was a suitably oleaginous Goro and Richard Wiegold a sonorous, if vocally under-powered, Bonze. Revival director Sarah Crisp might have done well to have kept some  of the wedding scene antics under tighter control. Surprsingly, the most striking performance of the evening came from Sian Meinir as a wholly unsympathetic and patently insincere Kate Pinkerton. Dressed in what looked like a tight-corseted W.I. uniform that recalled the one worn by the Nurse who escorts Blanche Dubois to the asylum at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, Meinir invested her character's few lines with a chilling hauteur and she was every inch the western woman repelled by the quaintness and barbarity of the east.  

Karah Son (Cio-Cio San) and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Suzuki) © Jeremy Abrahams
Karah Son (Cio-Cio San) and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Suzuki)
© Jeremy Abrahams

In the pit, Andrew Greenwood presided over an efficient account of the score that never entirely caught fire, with the trombones getting a little out of hand and threatening to overwhelm the singers in the Act 1 duet. The WNO Orchestra continues to be an instrument of great power and sensitivity but these virtues were only in intermittent evidence here.

On balance, an enjoyable evening, even if this performance lacked the sense of involvement from the principals needed to give the tragedy its proper impact.  

***11