Manon, Mimi, Tosca and Cio-Cio San. Why does Puccini send these women to such heartless deaths? It’s a question which musicologist Mosco Carner answered in the 1950s with a speculative Freudian reduction (the composer apparently had a debilitating mother complex). In this Volksoper production, director Stefan Herheim’s response is to point the finger at the audience: Butterfly quickly develops second thoughts about suicide and it is we who brutally stab her to death as she pleads for her life. Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt is sometimes mistranslated as the effect of alienating the audience, but there was no doubt about it in this production. The reaction from vast swathes of the stalls was stony silence and looks of disgust.

Melba Ramos as Butterfly, © Barbara Pálffy / Volksoper
Melba Ramos as Butterfly,
© Barbara Pálffy / Volksoper

As callous as one may find the ending, there is no risk of misunderstanding the thinking behind Herheim’s provocation. The idea – that audiences flock to this warhorse for the tragic dénouement and there’s something creepily voyeuristic about it – is set up and explored from every angle by a vacillating onstage Puccini, who struggles throughout the opera to find an alternative ending. Often he simply observes from the wings, anguish writ large in his face with every misstep that Butterfly makes. At the climax of Butterfly and Pinkerton’s duet he throws glitter in the air with a despairing look; a cutting image which points out how desperately banal this love story is. In Act II, he is a more proactive figure: donning a mask to sing Yamodori, he tries to reason with Butterfly; when that fails, he makes feverish corrections to the score and at the end of the orchestral interlude (just before the final scene) he rips up the manuscript in frustration. Haunted by the ghosts of Manon, Mimi and Tosca, his final act is to resign himself to the impending tragedy, motioning where the knife should go in a move which instantaneously slays all three leading ladies. The final scene is set at a contemporary art gallery’s Puccini retrospective where the milling guests, including Pinkerton and his new American wife, represent typical members of the modern opera-going public. When Kate seals Butterfly’s fate, we are implicated. And as Butterfly’s doubts get stronger, so does our bloodlust; she casts the knife aside repeatedly only to have it forced back into her hand. At the end the frustrated crowd turn on her for a gruesome lynching.

It’s a shocking blow to take, even for the more open-minded opera-goer. But judged in context, Herheim’s conclusion is less a hollow provocation than a sobering take on the work carried out with a strong directorial hand and detailed knowledge of the score. The stagecraft isn’t as stunning as in his later work (this production dates from 2004), but the detail, particularly in the crowd scenes, has revived well. Sets and costumes, which are all traditional until the final scene, are functional but effective.

Melba Ramos gave a sensitively judged performance in the title role, floating some good piano top notes with a delicacy that easily gave way to something warmer and more robust. Production was strong for much of the evening with just a couple of patchy moments. Having Puccini himself interfering in the action means that this production needs a more changeable personality than usually the case, and Ramos’s acting never failed to convince.

Jenk Bieck’s Pinkerton was just as solidly acted, but singing-wise things were disappointing. His middle range didn’t cut through the orchestra so well and top notes were rather forced. Josef Luftensteiner was too weak-voiced to really be heard as Yamadori, but gave a star turn as Puccini. His weak-willed portrait of the composer brought Herheim’s Konzept to life compellingly. Supporting characters were all fine, but I was particularly impressed with Jeffrey Treganza as Goro, a character who was required to seem more clued up about Puccini’s onstage presence than most, and do some silly things with a cane without appearing too ridiculous. Treganza pulled off both tasks admirably.

Tetsuro Ban conducted a romantic but not overly sentimental account of the score. The orchestra was excellent in the big moments and a fair few of the softer ones as well. Minor errors intruded from time to time, but overall the playing sounded well-rehearsed and confident.