The Royal Opera – Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly – Japanese tragedy in three acts [Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica; sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Cio-Cio-San (‘Madama Butterfly’) – Liping Zhang
B.F. Pinkerton – Miroslav Dvorsky
Sharpless – Alan Opie
Suzuki – Elena Cassian
Goro – Martyn Hill
The Bonze – Jeremy White
Imperial Commissioner – Jacques Imbrailo
Official Registrar – Jonathan Coad
Mother – Ann Tudor Williams
Cousin – Miranda Westcott
Aunt – Kathleen Wilder
Uncle Yakusidé – Alan Duffield
Prince Yamadori – Quentin Hayes
Kate Pinkerton – Liora Grodnikaite
‘Sorrow’ (Cio-Cio-San’s child) – Alex Roberts [non-singing role]

The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Nicola Luisotti

Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier – Original production
Stephen Barlow – Revival director
Christian Fenouillat – Set designs
Agostino Cavalca – Costume designs
Christophe Forey – Lighting

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 14 February, 2007
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

This is the third revival of a production (shared with the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona) first staged in 2003. Liping Zhang appeared in the first revival; otherwise most of the cast are new to their roles.

Nicola Luisotti launched the opera at a fast and furious pace – and there were several passages subsequently which I felt were too quick for comfort, moving the drama along urgently though they undoubtedly did.

Conversely, in the duet that concludes the first act, for instance, there were some unconvincing pauses and slowing. Whilst Puccini certainly indicates ‘rit’ and ‘allargando’, these are very often qualified by ‘poco’ (a little), which was not what we were given on this first night. I also did not care for the considerable prolonging of the final chord, with an unmarked crescendo. But Luisotti secured fine playing from the orchestra – Puccini’s sometimes exotic sonorities registered fully, reminding us, if that is necessary, just what a master of orchestration the composer was.

Balance was largely good – just once or twice the brass needed reigning in at climaxes. Luisotti’s reading is clearly carefully considered and the largely melancholic nature of the music was extremely well conveyed. I had rather forgotten how many times Butterfly refers to ‘death’; her first uttering of ‘morto’ in response to Sharpless’s query about her father, with baleful orchestral commentary, sent a shiver through the theatre.

As the doomed heroine, Liping Zhang has the advantage of looking convincingly young. Supposedly only 15 when she takes the fatal step of marrying Pinkerton and naïvely believing in their exchange of vows, Zhang was able to convey youthful vulnerability without affectation. She moves gracefully and comports herself graciously. Her gradual realisation of the reality of her situation towards the end of the opera was heartbreaking, as were the scenes with ‘Sorrow’, her son, excellently acted by Alex Roberts. For one comparatively slight in build, she has surprisingly powerful reserves of volume, which she deployed at the appropriate moments. She avoided the optional – though arguably necessary – top D flat at the end of her entrance scene, but provided a powerful top C at the climax of the love duet.

Butterfly is first heard offstage and, of course, it is treacherous to have to pitch accurately in these circumstances, but Zhang was audibly flat and I have to report that this problem plagued her intermittently throughout the performance, though she was less prone to this as the evening went on. She could also have projected the text – consonants especially – with greater clarity.

Nevertheless, histrionically this was a thoroughly believable portrayal, which is not something that can be said of all sopranos in this part, no matter how fine their voices.

American Andrew Richards was to have made his debut as Pinkerton, but he was announced as being ill and so Miroslav Dvorsky made his first Covent Garden appearance in his stead. (Richards is scheduled to sing on 17 February.) In these circumstances there was possibly little time for rehearsal. It took Dvorsky a little while to settle down. His somewhat baritonal tenor does not quite have the bright, Italianate timbre the part of Pinkerton ideally demands, but he rose to the challenges of the climaxes and appeared suitably contrite in Act Two when he realises how reckless his behaviour has been. I’d have preferred his final, anguished distant cries of ‘Butterfly’ less remote, however.

Alan Opie gave a well-rounded characterisation of the US Consul – a picture of avuncular concern when trying to relate news of Pinkerton to Butterfly in Act Two, and showing another side when, towards the end, he tries to persuade the latter to give up her son. His enunciation of the text was exemplary.

Elena Cassian as Suzuki, the maid, demonstrated a maternal-like concern for Butterfly’s plight, though she couldn’t always conceal the essentially Slavic tone of her voice.

The supporting cast was generally strong. It is not easy to depict the marriage broker Goro without caricature, but Martyn Hill largely avoided doing so. Jeremy White’s Bonze was a bit blustery and I couldn’t quite see why a baritone had been cast in the role of Yamadori – a would-be suitor to Butterfly. The score designates a tenor as a counterpart to Pinkerton.

For once I was relieved not to have been distracted by silly directorial or design interventions. The only oddity was the total absence of furniture in a set that effectively enough depicted a house ‘made of paper’. This necessitated some awkward sitting down on – and subsequent getting up from – the floor. Panels slid up and down to reveal suitable backdrops, which were often very evocative.

Those who cough and sneeze were in abundance this evening, but whatever incidental disappointments there might have been, this performance was ultimately extremely moving and Puccini’s evocation of real, raw emotions powerfully affecting.

  • Remaining performances on 19, 22, 28 & 2, 8, 10 March at 7.30; on 24 February at 7 o’clock; and on 17 February at 12.30. (Performances on 8 & 10 March conducted by Paul Wynne Griffiths)
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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