Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Royal Opera House's 2017 production of Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" (1904): A Review

Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" is - according to the Operabase rankings - the sixth most popular opera in the world. The Italian composer's reworking of the story, which concerns a tragic and short-lived marriage between an impressionable young Japanese girl and a US naval officer stationed in Nagasaki, debuted in Milan in 1904, to mostly negative reviews (like a lot of achievements now regarded as classics). Puccini took the criticism extremely personally, and allegedly didn't leave his house for 2 weeks; it would also be several years before he wrote his next opera, 1910's "La fanciulla del West". But he did at least devote his time to revising "Madama Butterfly" - streamlining it, making it more accessible and giving his audience only the bare essentials. What remains is - as much as one can say this about an opera with three acts, lasting two and a half hours - a lean, tautly focussed work, with minimal digression or interruption. The action is all of a piece; there are no subplots. The setting remains the same throughout, and is itself a very confined space: a single room in an apartment in Nagasaki. The storyline is almost childishly easy to follow... which is perhaps why it is so devastatingly effective. The Royal Opera House's 2017 production, starring Ermonela Jaho as the eponymous Madame Butterfly, Cio-cio-San, displays this almost ruthless sense of focus to its fullest extent, leaving the audience in a state of almost overwhelming emotional intensity.

It's one of the oldest stories there is: man seduces woman, taking away her innocence and making her his plaything, while she's fooled into thinking it's an elevated kind of love. In fact, in more than one detail, the relationship between Cio-cio-San and Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (and could there be a name more awash with Americana) evokes one of the oldest tellings of that story - Dido and Aeneas in Virgin's Aeneid. The safe, warm shelter of a cave becomes Cio-cio-San's apartment; but the details of sailing away in a ship and leaving heartbreak behind are exactly the same. In one sense, there is a familiarity to all this which means nobody is ever likely to be surprised by the plot of "Madama Butterfly" - the most obvious element being as literal a Chekhov's gun as you've ever known, the dagger which the Mikado sent Cio-cio-San's father with the command that he kill himself, appearing early in Act 1. Anyone who had not yet predicted that the tragic heroine would kill herself out of desperation due to unrequited love must surely have guessed there and then.

Yet in another sense, that familiarity is what makes "Madama Butterfly" so painfully affecting. We know this story; we've all seen it countless times; some of us have even lived it, though hopefully in less dramatic fashion. It is precisely our worldliness and foreknowledge upon which Puccini relies in presenting us with his heroine's naïveté. And so when the opera reaches its height - for my money, not Butterfly's suicide, but the solo "Un bel di" (One Fine Day), in which, in a manner almost too hopelessly pathetic and yet terribly optimistic to watch, Cio-cio-san sings of her certainty that her beloved Pinkerton will come back to her. Jaho cuts an extraordinary figure as Butterfly, both her vocals reaching an extraordinary purity but also her body language selling the change from the Cio-cio-San of Act 1, excitable and in love, to the more dejected figure she becomes. There is a delicacy and vulnerability to her - evident in the chilling end to the first act, as Pinkerton seduces her - which is paradoxically yet perfectly matched by a steely resolve, believing in her husband even as no one else does.

Jaho is the obvious standout, though Marcelo Puente puts in a strong turn as the odious Pinkerton, and supporting cast do good work with roles such as Suzuki and Sharpless; only Goro the marriage-broker is a little irritating. The production is unfussy and pure, with tiny, charming flourishes such as a shrine to a Shinto god and a Statue of Liberty figurine both standing guard over the apartment, and the set design is generally spare so as not to distract from the actors (though the vistas of Nagasaki are well-done). But it is moments like "Un bel di" from which you will be utterly unable to look away, and which will leave you in a state of almost withdrawn taciturnity, such is the heightened emotional effect they exert.

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