Here is a production of Madama Butterfly that is open and airy, quiet in its theatrics, in which the characters move with the grace and inevitability of shadows on the wall. The set, designed by Christopher Oram, centers on a curving ramp to nowhere, around which Japanese screens move with clocklike precision. It is always late dusk or early dawn, and the dark blues and light pinks have a calming effect on the histrionics of this shopworn tale, somehow lending it a touch of dignity and resignation.

Amanda Enchalaz and James Valenti © Dan Rest
Amanda Enchalaz and James Valenti
© Dan Rest

Madama Butterfly is so much what we associate with the operatic that it may well seem familiar even to those seeing it for the first time. Simplicity of design is, therefore, a good strategy – not only to refresh weary eyes, but also to give breathing room to Puccini’s incessant beauties, which hoard the attention. Hardly a moment goes by that isn’t inflected this way or that, that isn’t buttressed by a swell or a shimmer of strings. It should be said that the orchestra was in fine form this night, finding an especially rich tone and a lively step under the baton of Marco Armiliato.

Sharpless and Pinkerton, played respectively by Christopher Purves and James Valenti, are wonderfully cast as the Americans, the first paternal, the second oblivious. Valenti’s American is unmistakable: loud, unhesitant, tall. Puccini’s stereotyping of him, not to mention Cio-Cio San’s mythological view of what Americans are, only just keep this work from being too racist to continue staging in modern times. Its misogyny, however, remains unredeemed, or unbalanced. Puccini himself acknowledged that his operas frequently trade on the suffering of women; our after-work pleasure continues to.

Amanda Echalaz is a fairly undramatic Butterfly with a lovely voice; she doesn’t get the hem of her kimono dirty. Yet who can blame her, when everyone knows that crowds gather at this show to clap, to see great singing, never mind the appalling colonial politics? I’d love to see a Butterfly so harrowing that an audience is silenced, caught in their own apolitical pleasure, forced to eat their tickets. It would be a rebuke to the countless Butterflies who have paraded across countless stages, sung beautifully, perished. What tortured singing is missing in the operatic warhorse canon is the torture. And that would be a Butterfly worth staging.