Madama Butterfly – Review

Here’s a review of Madama Butterfly from Scottish Opera which I saw just before I was signed off sick. This also appears on the Opera Britannia blog.

Rating: ★★★★☆

For their final show in an uncertain season, Scottish Opera return to form with an achingly beautiful revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Madama Butterfly from the turn of the millennium. It looks good, sounds good and the final denouement is completely devastating.

The production is dominated by Hye-Youn Lee’s Cio-Cio San. From her first appearance accompanied by her cooing relatives, she was mesmerising. She also managed to navigate the transition from young girl to married mother perfectly, seeming to grow in stature and maturity before our eyes. A particular highlight came at the end of her “Ancora un passo”where the top notes simply shimmered into view like a mirage. This was effortless singing which showed how laboured other sopranos can seem. Her “Un bel di” was also perfectly judged. Sung simply from centre stage with no action or stage business to distract us, one could feel the golden glimmer of the sun in her voice. Even at this point, it was clear that Butterfly’s devotion to her man was complete and final.

Her man himself, Pinkerton, was played by José Ferrero. Now,I’ve only hear Ferrero once before (in Tosca in 2012) and was struck then by the fact that he seemed to need time to loosen up a bit on stage before getting into his stride. It was the same in this production, where one feared at first that he might simply have more volume on offer than emotion. There’s nothing wrong with his voice once he’s been on stage for 20 minutes but one fears initially that there is not going to be much warmth. In this production, it was unfortunate for him that at the start of proceedings he was up against Adrian Thomson’s excellent Goro, the marriage broker. Wonderfully clear diction and a sense of businesslike mischief showed us who was in charge, and it certainly wasn’t Pinkerton.

Hanna Hipp provided strong support to Ms Hye-Youn as her maid Suzuki.This was a confident Scottish Opera debut and one hopes to hear more of her. She was particularly effective in the final scene where Butterfly herself seemed often to be serenely committed to her fate whilst Suzuki’s reactions betrayed the true horror of the impending suicide.

Christopher Purves makes for an admirable Sharpless, the American consul. The consul is at the heart of the conspiracy of male power over women in Madama Butterfly. The men are all bad news for the vulnerable Butterfly and yet Purves manages to find a nobility in his voice which suggests that he really does care about her predicament, even if he is powerless to do much to help her.

One of the most confident young performances that I’ve seen on stage came from Barnaby Jones as Sorrow, Butterfly’s son. This non-singing role is crucial to the whole opera. If we don’t feel caught up in this boy’s predicament when Pinkerton comes to take him off to America then the whole project is a failure, no matter how devastating it may be that his mother dies. Barnaby Jones was on stage for a long time and never flagged at all, providing absolute focus to the final scenes. At the end, he was left blindfolded in a single stark spotlight from above before the final blackout. It was simply a devastating ending to the whole production and would have been impossible without such a strong performance from such a young performer.

The design by Yannis Thavoris uses a cool, Japanese minimalism to great effect. The production never feels rushed or busy and leaves very strong visual scenes imprinted on the mind, particularly the gentle beauty of Suzuki and Butterfly scattering blossoms around the house in the second act. The lighting design was sensitive and thoughtful with the odd exception of a very weird moon during the long duet at the end of the first act. One suspects that even though they appeared to be deeply in love and fixated with one another, Butterfly and Pinkerton would surely have paid some attention to the lunar eclipse that was rolling horizontally along the horizon behind them. Robert B Dickson, the Revival Lighting Designer (taking over from the original designer Paule Constable) maybe needs to go for a walk on a dark moonlit night. However, this was a solitary jarring feature.

There is, or there ought to be, much that is disturbing for a modern audience to reflect on in Madama Butterfly. Any production invites us to enter uncritically into a world where young women are disposable and can be bought and sold. We are invited to witness the marriage of an older cruel man to a slip of a girl and to see her motivation and devotion as something more than simply naive. Here, McVicar managed to bring out a strong sense that all of the men involved are trouble from the word go. This is also a world where the gods, Japanese and American alike, refuse to turn up yet here there was a striking integrity in Butterfly’s devotion and inner world. Meanwhile, we get to see an outer world in which Yankee imperialism is seen as utterly triumphant. Yet in this production, the more American Butterfly tries to become, the more Japanese she turns out to be.

Down in the pit, the orchestra seemed to be enjoying having Marco Guidarini in charge. They sounded both perky and under control – something that has not always been the case in recent years with Scottish Opera.

It is wonderful to have McVicar’s production revived under Elaine Kidd. At the end of a somewhat precarious season for Scottish Opera, one must hope that this is the shape of things to come and not merely a fond glance over the shoulder to what the company was once capable of.