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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
Madama Butterfly, Opera in Three Acts
Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, Joshua Guerrero (tenor); Goro, Carlo Bosi (tenor); Suzuki, Elizabeth DeShong (mezzo-soprano); Sharpless, Michael Sumuel (baritone); Madame Butterfly, Olga Busuioc (soprano); The Cousin, Jennifer Witton (soprano); The Mother, Eirlys Myfanwy Davies (mezzo-soprano); Yakuside, Adam Marsden (bass); The Aunt, Shuna Scott Sendall (soprano); Imperial Commissioner, Michael Mofidian (bass); Official Registrar, Jake Muffett (bass); Bonze, Oleg Budaratskiy (bass); Prince Yamadori, Simon Mechlinski (tenor)
Sorrow, Rupert Wade; Kate Pinkerton, Ida Ränzlöv (mezzo-soprano)
The Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Omer Meir Wellber
Director, Annilese Miskimmon
Designer, Nicky Shaw. Lighting Designer, Mark Jonathan. Movement Director, Kally Lloyd-Jones
rec. live 21 June 2018, Glyndebourne, UK
Video Designer, Ian William Galloway
Sound Format, LPCM 2.0/DTS Digital Surround.
Filmed in 16:9 Anamorphic
Subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean
OPUS ARTE OA1167D DVD [143:00]

The archetype of a western soldier’s encounter with an exotic woman is familiar, appearing in countless stories across the ages. ‘Orientalism’, as Edward Said put it, is the depiction of eastern societies in western art. Puccini’s lavish score falls into this category, and the quality of a Madama Butterfly production should therefore be measured in terms of the extent to which an ‘eastern’ feeling is conjured.

The high standard of presentation is clear immediately. In order to aid the story, video reels of 20th-century American-Japanese couples are played in the background. The set is sparse, in keeping with the Japanese style and creating an eastern atmosphere. The sound quality is strong, too, as can be expected from Glyndebourne releases.

Beginning at an admirable tempo, conductor Omer Meir Wellber races through the opening bars. Joshua Guerrero grabs the attention immediately, portraying that unmistakable confidence of a well-cast Pinkerton. The stage is then quickly stolen by the soaring soprano of Olga Busuioc, as she approaches from off stage as Butterfly. Wellber is particularly good at highlighting the off-key messages Puccini sneaks into the orchestral score, telling the audience that all may not end well. Michael Sumuel, in his role as Sharpless, is grave in his warnings against Pinkerton’s thoughtlessness. The Glyndebourne Chorus make the conflicting cultures clear and shocking, in preparation for the drama that follows. So, too, do the singers: in the first Act, Pinkerton’s gaze is fixed on Butterfly, but she hardly glances at him. This is a powerful direction – one that represents the gulf between the newlywed couple.

The second Act showcases Butterfly’s anguish, as Busuioc comes into her own. She sings with conviction, and is a worthy contender, alongside Angela Gheorghiu, for one of the most convincing modern singers in the role. As for the orchestra, the oriental elements are much more apparent – and so they should be. Puccini made a concerted effort to alter his orchestral language in this opera, knowing he had to paint a persuasive picture of Japanese culture. He achieves this through unusual use of the woodwind, and by making the strings even more chromatic. Another device used to compel the plot is the dimming of the stage lights for the last moments of the Act, foretelling the tragedy that follows, and setting the scene for the grim finale. Elizabeth DeShong’s Suzuki fears desperately for her companion, amidst a compelling closing scene.

The beginning of Act Three is impressive from a directorial perspective, opening with a projection of Butterfly’s dream on the stage, with the character herself slumped in a chair, asleep. The ensuing ensemble is striking enough, and the rest of the opera holds the attention well. Wellber emphasises the eastern qualities in the score, and Butterfly’s suicide is all the more powerful with her innocent son in the foreground.

All in all, a pleasing cooperation between the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Chorus, under the vigorous baton of Omer Meir Wellber.

Edward Christian-Hare

Previous review (Blu-ray): Dave Billinge

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