35 years and many revivals after it was first seen, the late Joachim Herz’s version of Madam Butterfly (“Madama” spelt without the “a” here) is still going. For WNO’s themed series of “Free Spirits”, Caroline Chaney took on the revival director’s mantle. The result was a reliable production lacking in originality but not in warmth. Puccini’s Butterfly, so much changed after is disastrous original première in 1904, has rightly found a place among the most popular operas in existence. Tonight, in Southampton’s Mayflower theatre, it was done justice, but played very straight so that it slightly lacked freshness.

WNO Madam Butterfly: Alan Opie (Sharpless) and Cheryl Barker (Madam Butterfly) © Jeni Clegg
WNO Madam Butterfly: Alan Opie (Sharpless) and Cheryl Barker (Madam Butterfly)
© Jeni Clegg

It’s a recurring problem trying to find a soprano who can produce the big voice required from such voluminous arias as “Un bel dì vedremo”, yet retain the vulnerability of a 15-year-old. I couldn’t believe Judith Howarth’s physical or vocal presence to be that of a young Cio-Cio-San. When she relaxed into the part, though – which took the best part of Act I – her voice evened out and positively glowed, despite sounding tired at just a few moments, mainly at the top of her range.

As Pinkerton, Gwyn Hughes Jones was successful enough a villain to be booed at his curtain call. He injected strength and character into his role, equally capable of recklessness and deep regret. Alan Opie’s Sharpless came close to matching his charisma; in particular, he and Howarth had a winning chemistry in the ominous letter scene. More generally, Claire Bradshaw gave solid performance by as Suzuki, at one with her character and a good complement for Howarth.

Of the most touching musical episodes was the humming chorus which ends the first part of Act II; time seemed to freeze and the emotion which underpins the opera was distilled in a couple of minutes. The chorus were fine throughout, although the bitter vitriol toward Butterfly, when she is rejected for apparently defecting to America’s religion, wasn’t there as it has been in other productions.

The set is memorable as ever. Coloured with shades of sepia, it successfully creates the effect of an old photographic print. Some clever use of translucent sliding screens are the nearest we get to a scene-change and even the sumptuous layers of twigs and leaves (or are they butterflies?) framing the stage lose their allure over the course of the three acts. It’s a claustrophobic production, exacerbated tonight by the relatively small environment of the Mayflower. But Butterfly is a claustrophobic opera, firmly centred on the small world of the tragic heroine. I wouldn’t be the first to point out that she doesn’t really fit in with the “Free Spirits” theme. But no matter how it was sold, the performance actually suited the smaller venue, which lent intimacy to Butterfly’s story.

Frédéric Chaslin made the orchestra sing nearly as much as the singers, taking most of the heavily motivic core at an indulgent pace and sensitively handling the sumptuous melodies. Even for the drama of Puccini, their dynamics came across as rather sudden; the brass section in particular could have exercised a little more restraint.

The story was played out clearly, the acting had charm and the voices mostly performed that melodramatic score capably. Physically, that sense of claustrophobia sometimes becomes overbearing – and if you've seen Herz’s famous production before I’d dare to say it starts to feel tired. Musically though everything is as it should be; not much more, not much less.