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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly
Cio-Cio-San – Ermonela Jaho; Pinkerton – Marcelo Puente; Sharpless – Scott Hendricks; Suzuki – Elizabeth DeShong; Goro – Carlo Bosi;
The Bonze – Jeremy White; Yamadori – Yuriy Yurchuk; Kate Pinkerton – Emily Edmonds; Imperial Commissioner – Gyula Nagy; Official Registrar – Jonathan Coad; Cio-Cio-San’s Mother – Eryl Royle; Uncle Yakusidé – Andrew O’Connor; Cousin – Amy Catt; Aunt – Kiera Lyness; Dolore (Cio-Cio-San’s son) – Harry Langton
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano
Chorus Director: William Spaulding
Stage Directors: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier
Set Designer: Christian Fenouillat
Costume Designer: Agostino Cavalca
Lighting Designer: Christophe Forey
rec. live, 30 March, 2017 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Bonus Feature: Introduction to Madama Butterfly; Ermonela Jaho and Antonio Pappano in rehearsal; Cast Gallery [12:36]
Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean.
Album notes: English, French, German.
Sound format: LPCM 2.0 & DTS HD Master Audio; Picture format: 16:9 Blu-ray
OPUS ARTE Blu-ray OABD7244D [150 mins]

It seems that most successful opera productions have at least one outstanding lead singer who distinguishes the effort from estimable or from merely competent performances. That is the case here as Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho turns in an outstanding performance to make this a very special Madama Butterfly. Ms. Jaho comes across more than any other singer on video that I’m aware of as a very vulnerable, very fragile Cio-Cio-San. As most Puccini and opera mavens are aware, that is how the character is supposed to be portrayed: she is after all a deluded fifteen-year-old, full of naïveté about the intentions of the scoundrel Pinkerton. Of course, the singers cast to portray her over the years are always older, sometimes much older. Sometimes too, they convey an older demeanor as well. Not Jaho.

Though she was born in 1974, she is the essence of youth and vulnerability in her movements, in her petite size, and her facial expressions. Her voice matches her fragility and innocence: it is bright and light, lyrical and warm, not the kind to ring out above the orchestra in loud passages, though quite sufficient for this role. Her dramatic skills are impressive, as she perfectly conveys the shy teenager, innocent and flirtatious, fiercely loyal to Pinkerton, willing to adopt his Western ways, and naïvely hopeful, during his three-year absence, that he will return for her.

In the Act I closing duet ‘Vogliatemi bene’ Jaho sings so beautifully and with such passion that you are focusing primarily on her, though Puente turns in an admirable performance here even if his dramatic skills are somewhat less convincing. Jaho also delivers a splendid ‘Un bel di, vedremo’, and as the opera works toward its tragic end her intensity seems to grow – and grow on you. Overall, she creates perhaps the finest and most powerful portrait of Cio-Cio-San on video. I’ll get to comparisons in a moment.

Among the other cast members mezzo Elizabeth DeShong makes a fine Suzuki. Her Act II Flower Duet (Tutti i fior) is radiant, even alongside Jaho who sings beautifully here as well. DeShong’s acting abilities are especially fine too, and you so often notice them when she is not singing, only reacting with facial expressions and gestures. The rest of the cast perform reasonably well, with Carlo Bosi’s Goro a notable success. Marcelo Puente is mostly fine as Pinkerton and Scott Hendricks a bit less effective in the role of Sharpless. Antonio Pappano is one of the better Puccini conductors before the public today. He seems always aware of the emotional flow of the music, phrasing it to heighten its drama and beauty, selecting the right tempo, never sabotaging its linear movement with ill-judged rubato, and in the end drawing excellent playing from the ROH Orchestra and fine singing from the chorus.

The production is traditional, having costuming and sets that place the story in late 19th century Japan, and there is no attempt to radically or even significantly change the story. Lighting is very effective, and other aspects of the production, while not particularly lavish, convincingly capture the spirit of the times and the tragedy of the story. The sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity are all first rate on this Blu-ray disc. There are a couple of short bonus videos, the more interesting of which features Pappano rehearsing with Ms. Jaho.

The best competition on video comes from Sony (DVD) with Patricia Racette as Butterfly and Patrick Summers conducting, from the Met (2009). Racette really throws her heart into the role and is very nearly as convincing as Jaho. The production is a little less effective, though. Other worthwhile efforts on video include the Arthaus Musik Blu-ray/DVD featuring Alexia Voulgaridou as Butterfly and Alexander Joel conducting, wherein Ms. Voulgaridou also manages to capture the dramatic side of her character quite well; TDK with Fiorenza Cedolins in the lead and Daniel Oren conducting; Unitel Classica with Raffaella Angeletti as Cio-Cio-San and Danielle Callegari conducting; Opus Arte with Cheryl Barker as Butterfly and Edo de Waart conducting, but the poses, robotic movements and stylized hand gestures of the characters wear thin rather quickly.

So, this new Opus Arte effort from Covent Garden is my current choice for this opera on video. Even though a few cast members are good but not great, the performance by Ms. Jaho and contribution by Pappano and company elevate this effort to the status of outstanding.

Robert Cummings
Previous review: Roy Westbrook



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