When Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala in 1904, it was heavily booed. Few who attended that disastrous first performance could have imagined that, more than one hundred years on, it would have evolved into one of the most enduringly popular and widely performed operas in the world. Taking inspiration from the American playwright David Belasco's dramatisation of John Luther Long's story Madame Butterfly and Pierre Loti's novel Madame Chrysanthème, Puccini's tragic opera tells the story of Cio Cio San, a fifteen year-old Japanese girl known as Butterfly, who falls in love with and marries an American naval officer, B.F Pinkerton. Besotted with her new husband, Cio Cio San renounces her religion and is shunned by her family, but is soon abandoned by the unscrupulous naval officer who, ignorant of her pregnancy, returns to the USA and remarries.

Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-San © Robert Workman
Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-San
© Robert Workman

Opera North's current Madama Butterfly is a revival of their successful 2007 production directed by Tim Albery, with the French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels reprising her acclaimed performance in the title role and the up and coming American tenor Noah Stewart (who has recently signed a recording contract with Decca) making his Opera North debut as Pinkerton. Duprels has a perfect voice for Puccini- powerful enough to soar over the dramatic elements of the score, yet soft and sensitive enough to negotiate Cio Cio San's many vulnerable moments. Her Un bel di, vedremo, the aria in which Butterfly sings of her determination that Pinkerton will return to Japan, was a heartbreaking masterclass in naivete and self deception, due in no small part to her acting talent. Emotional and childlike, she skipped about the stage as if it were her playground and fainted at the news that her husband did not intend to come back to her.

The chemistry between Duprels and Stewart isn't electric, but it works well in conveying the notion that these two very different young people know very little of each other, or of life and love in general. Stewart's Pinkerton seems lost and unworldly- more irresponsible, hormonal youth than cold, calculating playboy. He possesses a strong, smooth, youthful tenor which has not yet developed much warmth, making him the perfect choice for the role. He cut an imposing figure in costume designer Ana Jebens' 1950s white naval uniform, part of an overall theme that, although a little more Mad Men than traditional Madama Butterfly, is visually stunning and works extremely well in communicating the idea that Cio Cio San's tragic story is far from being a relic of the 1900s.

The supporting cast all gave stellar performances, with baritone Peter Savidge returning to his sensitive, dulcet-toned Sharpless and mezzo soprano Ann Taylor creating an unusually complex, velvetty Suzuki. As always, the Chorus of Opera North made their mark, relishing their role as Cio Cio San's outraged Japanese family and providing us with a very pretty but melancholic Humming Chorus.

But the most compelling reason to see this production of Madama Butterfly is young Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni. In 2008, Rustioni won a place on the Royal Opera House's Jette Parker Young Artists' Programme and became an Associate Conductor under the tuition of Antonio Pappano. This year, he made his extremely successful ROH debut conducting Verdi's Aida, and has been widely acknowledged as 'one to watch'. Under Rustioni's baton, the Opera North orchestra were at their richest and most colourful, moving effortlessly from the spirited drama of the overture to the gentle precision of the Humming Chorus via the glorious, sweeping waves of the love duet, Vogliateme bene. As the opera reached its tragic conclusion I realised that, as wonderful as Duprels and Stewart were, it was Rustioni's masterful control of the music that was driving the intense emotion. He's on his way to the top, so catch him while you can.