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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly, opera in three acts (1904-6)
Cio-Cio San - Ermonela Jaho
Pinkerton - Marcelo Puente
Sharpless - Scott Hendricks
Suzuki - Elizabeth DeShong
Goro - Carlo Bosi
Bonze - Jeremy White
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Sir Antonio Pappano
Stage Directors: Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier
Set designer: Christian Fenouillat. Costume designer: Agostino Cavalca
Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, London, 30th March 2017
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo/Surround 5.1; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; All Regions; Subtitles in English, French, German, Korean, Japanese; booklet notes and synopsis in English, French and German
Blu-ray disc reviewed in surround.
OPUS ARTE OABD7244D Blu-ray [149 mins]

This is a fine film of an excellent performance of Madama Butterfly. The production was new in 2003 but it is conducted here for the first time by Covent Garden’s Music Director, Antonio Pappano, with a strong cast. It is a traditional production, set in Nagasaki in the early 20th century, sympathetically and at times imaginatively directed. In fact the opera itself is so closely based on the assumptions that East and West then held about each other, that to shift its time and location becomes more than usually perilous. It is ultimately a tragedy founded on the deepest cultural misunderstanding and misappropriation, and we need the visible context of the sort the set and costumes provide here. That set is the little house on the hill, leased with American dollars, where the child Cio-Cio San and Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton are to set up home. In fact it fills the stage with its single room, its back walls pulled up and down to reveal in Act One first Nagasaki harbour (in a grainy black-and-white photograph), or the surrounding flower-strewn hills, or enable entrances and exits.

The cast is a fine one. The Pinkerton of Marcelo Puente looks the part, has an attractive basic sound and is musical and sensitive. He is suitably ardent in the love duet, impatient to enjoy his purchase. Though his head voice has slightly intrusive vibrato, his is still a very convincing portrayal of the role. His well-sung mournful Act 3 aria “Addio, mio fiorito asil”, a late addition by the composer to make Pinkerton less of a swine, has the usual effect of making him a self-pitying swine. The Sharpless of Scott Hendricks acts well and is vocally impressive as the moral compass Pinkerton ignores, and Elizabeth DeShong is an excellent Suzuki, touchingly affected by her inability to get Butterfly to see sense.

But the casting of Madama Butterfly must always be strongest in the title role, and this performance is a triumph for Ermonela Jaho. Her stage make-up and the many filmed close-ups do her no favours, as is often the case in opera, but it is her oustanding singing that matters, as well as the detail of her acting, which together make her seem fragile enough to pass for the 15-year old of Act 1. She thereafter grows in stature to embrace self-sacrifice rather than endure dishonour; this role requires, and her performance delivers, a convincing passage from childish naivety to a tragic acceptance that shames all those who would have shamed her. Jaho’s expressive control of soft singing is world-class, and for older collectors she might even recall the late Monserrat Caballé. And if she is not quite a real spinto, her two top B flats at the climax of “Un bel dì” have no problem soaring above the theme’s towering ff recapitulation by the orchestra. Having stabbed herself, she staggers across the stage, each flap of her voluminous sleeve ends punctuating the ebbing away of her short life. Butterfly has probably the highest blub factor in the repertory, and this Cio-Cio-San spares us nothing. In one of the extra features on the disc Pappano tells us “the reason I am conducting this revival is because of Ermonela Jaho. She has a heart, which she can serve on a platter to the audience”.

Pappano’s reputation as a Puccini conductor stands very high, rivalling that of Riccardo Chailly. This issue, alongside the recent filmed La Bohème from the same opera company and label, further bolsters his Puccinian credentials. The ROH Orchestra plays very well indeed for him, and he combines the mastery of the long sweep of the music with telling incidental details, and skilful transitions. He is not bound by traditional middle-of-the-road tempi, being at certain times both swifter and slower than you might expect, but the speeds seem always persuasive in context. Even at the piano in the intriguing extra features, as Pappano expounds aspects of the score as he rehearses with his lead soprano, we see his understanding of Puccini’s text and his concern for details of vocal interpretation.
Madama Butterfly is indestructible. The revisions – it took five versions to arrive at the standard one heard here – tightened the structure to focus unpityingly on the tragedy of Cio-Cio-San. But it is also a deeply discomforting work of art. We encounter imperial bullying, the patronising of ‘quaint’ native local customs, pressure to abandon Eastern religion for a Western one, sex tourism, and the exploitation of female vulnerability by male dominated cultures. That’s all there in the libretto and score, and if it were premiered today, in the #MeToo era, there would be an outcry. But in the safe, high culture setting of an opera house, we can be invited to witness the destruction of an innocent young person, and to the most glorious music. (Only Billy Budd has approached it since in this respect). The task of any production is to show us clearly what the text both says and implies, and in the right hands Puccini’s music will do the rest. That is exactly what happened in this fine production when I saw it in this same run at the Royal Opera House, and here it is, beautifully captured on this superb Blu-ray disc and with compelling surround sound.

Roy Westbrook



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