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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)   
Madama Butterfly. Opera in two acts (1904)
Madama Butterfly: Ermonela Jaho (soprano); Pinkerton: Marcelo Puente (tenor); Suzuki: Elizabeth DeShong (mezzo-soprano); Sharpless: Scott Hendricks (baritone); Goro: Carlo Bosi (tenor); Il Bonze: Jeremy White (bass); Kate Pinkerton: Emily Edmonds (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of The Royal Opera House, London/Antonio Pappano
rec. 2017
Directors: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier
Set Designer: Christian Fenouillat
Costume Designer: Agostino Cavalca
Video Director: Matthew Woodward
Picture Format, 16:9 Anamorphic, Sound formats, dts Digital Surround, Dolby Digital
Subtitles, English, German, French, Japanese and Korean
Booklet notes in English, German and French.
OPUS ARTE OA1268D DVD [149 mins]

It was at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London in July 1900 that Puccini saw the David Belasco play on which this opera is based and, despite knowing little English, saw its potential as an opera. He was so impressed that he rushed to Belasco’s dressing room and begged him for the operatic rights to the play, confirming this with his publisher Ricordi on his return to Italy. Having repaired his relationship with Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, the librettists of Tosca, the composer asked them to prepare a libretto. After several changes to the location of the plot, the opera was premiered at La Scala on 17th February 1904 and was a fiasco, inducing the composer to withdraw and revise the work, first for Brescia and finally, with great success, at the Paris Opéra Comique on December 28th 1906. It was a trip abroad to see the premiere of Tosca, featuring De Lucia and Antonio Scotto, which led directly to the premiere Madama Butterfly at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1907.

Puccini’s decision to set the opera in Japan resolved many of the obstacles to its achieving success. In this production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, with sets by Christian Fenouillat, the style is very definitely Japanese, the house having sliding doors and windows with views typical of the country, as is the colourful lilac blossom and wisteria. At one point early on, an opening reveals a spectacular vista of Nagasaki harbour.

The story has for some years been problematic, particularly now that paedophilia is an issue in the forefront of modern life. The idea that a visiting, well-off Yank, could buy sex with a fifteen-year-old via a so-called marriage ceremony, then leave her pregnant and return with a proper American wife to take away his child, is beyond repulsive to us. A good aspect of this staging and cast is that there is no way that Ermonela Jaho as Butterfly could be mistaken for a virginal fifteen-year-old, either in appearance or vocal quality. I have seen many performances of this opera and never encountered a singer who could achieve the voice or behaviour of a fifteen-year-old, although a few have tried to lighten their more mature voices to affect that vocal quality. In this performance, Ermonela Jaho plays the role as a young women and age does not impinge, only the deception, whilst the evolution of the story indicates the innocence of Butterfly’s dream of being a genuine American bride. As the truth gradually emerges that Pinkerton will never return as her husband, Ermonela Jaho’s acted and vocal interpretation attains true greatness to an extent that I have never seen in this role before in either a live or recorded performance. Her quality of interpretation comes via her singing as well as her acting, as she gives what I can only call a truly great performance as the tragic story unfolds.

Great performances of this quality are not achieved by one singer alone, but by a team aided by a sympathetic conductor. Covent Garden have been extremely careful in this respect, in what I believe is Pappano’s first time conducting this production, to complement his renowned skill and affection for Puccini’s music with a cast wholly suited to the vocal and histrionic demands of their roles. As the cad Pinkerton, Marcelo Puente - whose voice I have not heard before - looks suitably suave and physically impressive in his naval uniform, using his strong, burnished tenor to good effect, matched by subtleties in his acting demeanour. His Second Act regrets, when he returns with his American wife to take his child back to America, come over as meaningful and with a genuinely regretful vocal and acted demeanour - not skills exhibited by many tenors I have seen in that thankless role. Matching him in every respect, even in comparison with Ermonela Jaho in the title role, is Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki. Her make up makes her appear genuinely Asiatic and is more meaningful for that. For this Suzuki, the tragic final outcome of the story is evident early on, but her menial status prevents her from challenging the unfolding drama, and she merely provides optimistic support to Butterfly. Scott Hendricks’s younger-than-usual Sharpless is, like Suzuki, in no position to affect change to the outcome, even though he despises Pinkerton’s casual attitude to the marriage ceremony. His firm tone and good characterisation make me interested in how his career will develop.

Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s direction is clear and done with great care and attention to detail. Agostino Cavalca’s costumes are appropriate throughout, particularly for the lesser roles who appear at Butterfly’s wedding and later for such as the grandiose Yamadori and the marriage broker, the latter scuttling about, trying to make more profit out of Butterfly’s tragedy. All contribute and blend to make as cohesive a performance of this work as can be conceived for today’s social values. The production is as good in its way as John Copley’s La Bohème - and one cannot give greater praise than that.

Robert J Farr

Previous reviews (Blu-ray): Roy Westbrook ~ Robert Cummings



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