The main Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe after 18 years of running out of sync have finally come together again and now run for the same three weeks in August. The concentration of events has resulted in a tangible air of excitement in the city this year, as each festival feeds off the other. Heading up the final week was Opera Bohemia’s Fringe-sized production of Madame Butterfly performed in the superbly elegant oval shaped St Andrew's and St George's West Church.

Melanie Gowie (Cio-Cio San) and Alistair Digges (Pinkerton) © Opera Bohemia
Melanie Gowie (Cio-Cio San) and Alistair Digges (Pinkerton)
© Opera Bohemia

Opera Bohemia set this Butterfly in 2012, the first performance of this production, the story starting three years earlier in 2009 when a certain Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton takes on the lease of a house on the hill overlooking Nagasaki Harbour. A modern day setting allows some leeway with the characters, so we meet Goro (Barry McAleer) as the slippery internet bride agency representative, setting up the bargain deal of a bride, her servant and a place to live for Pinkerton. He shows off the delicate paper-and-lattice sliding doors operated by remote control, and arranges the bride Cio-Cio San and officials to meet and agree the arrangements as he jabs away at his smartphone. It is a strong beginning, as a tousle-haired Sharpless, sung by Douglas Nairne, with his rich warm baritone, arrives out of breath from his climb up the hill, sets down his laptop bag, puts on his specs and clearly can’t quite believe what he is being asked to do: be a signatory to a US serviceman marrying a 15 year old, something we too would certainly question in a modern-day setting. Nairne was a complete study of a man in an awkward situation, particularly later as he has to think on his feet to find out the best way to spin bad news, and it is left to him to tenderly whisk the boy Sorrow up in his arms as he shields him from the final horrors. His first grimace as he realised that the house fell way, way short of Goro’s optimistic sales pitch was a picture.

An offstage small chorus announced Cio-Cio San’s arrival, Melanie Gowie’s bright soprano and perfect Italian diction conveyed the mix of the vulnerability of a teenager with the strength of the experience of the school of hard knocks from ‘street singing’. Dressed in traditional Japanese kimono in Act I, she wore a Chicago 69 sweatshirt and tight black jeans for much of the second. Cheryl Forbes (Suzuki) was queen of the killer sideways look to anyone threatening Butterfly, her honeyed mezzo blending well in the ensemble and lovely in the Flower Duet as the stage was festooned with blooms. It can’t be easy being a wee boy having to sit on an operatic soprano’s knee as she pours out her soul at full tilt, but Callum Piggot was perfect as Sorrow, dressed in a faded Route 66 T-shirt with a baseball cap, playing demurely with his toy figure or scanning the harbour for Pinkerton’s ship with bright yellow plastic toy binoculars.

Lieutenant Pinkerton must be one of opera’s most despised characters, and here, Alistair Digges with his light tenor and whitest of white uniforms was superbly unlikable, twisting everyone round his little finger to get his heart’s desire. The shock when he finally discovered just how much Butterfly loved him was not enough to win any sympathy whatsoever, particularly as Sharpless has to sort out his grim mess.

Melanie Gowie (Cio-Cio San) © Opera Bohemia
Melanie Gowie (Cio-Cio San)
© Opera Bohemia

John Wilkie directed his cast cleverly, making effective use of the small stage with few props and the simple white sliding door backdrop which also allowed him to shadowplay the final scene. This version was adapted for piano and violin, Gordon Cree making his piano sound like an entire orchestra with the mostly hidden violinist Gongbo Jiang sometimes taking the melody, or interweaving counter-melody. Despite placing the musicians at the back, out of sightline of the singers, it all worked surprisingly well, and Jiang took the humming line in the famous chorus.

I did rather miss the hopeful Prince Yamadori and the grumpy uncle Bonze – both referred to in the text rather than appearing in person. Edinburgh Fringe shows have to be smart and snappy, and coming in at two hours including an interval, this handsome festival version, a showcase for young Scottish singers, told the tragic story very effectively.

***11