MADAMA BUTTERFLY | London, Royal Opera House

This is the fifth revival of the Royal Opera House’s 2003 production, and the simple staging still comes across as fresh and absorbing. Puccini’s intensely romantic score could come across as overblown or lugubrious in the wrong hands, but under Antonio Pappano’s baton (Music Director of The Royal Opera), the cast and orchestra bring urgency, pace, and subtlety, in all the right places.

Soprano Ermonela Jaho imbues the young, tragically abandoned geisha Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly) with a heady mix of elegance, passion, and mania. Flipping unpredictably between wails of anguish and beautiful, ethereal control, this star turn is a tour-de-force, gripping the audience all the way to the opera’s shattering, tragic climax. The tenderness shown in the second and third act is central to the emotional impact of this production.

Though the exotic location and richly expressive score may seem the ingredients for a spectacle, this production fights against that impulse to good effect. Plain white Japanese-style paper screens provide a three-wall backdrop to the tragedy, which domesticates and intensifies the drama, as well as adding a symbolic, fairy-tale like atmosphere. Subtle changes in lighting provide the rest.

The eternal problem of this opera is in the casting: at the beginning, Cio-Cio-San is fifteen but looks ten, an emotionally fragile geisha girl desperate for emotional stability. At the end, she is an abandoned wife, wounded and passionate. The role requires immense stamina (she hardly leaves the stage) and vocal skill, as well as the ability to convey wild and unpredictable emotional changes. It is perhaps not surprising that nobody in the cast is Asian or Japanese, nor that the mature and charismatic Jaho is unable to convincingly portray a vulnerable child. Nonetheless, accepting these inherent staging difficulties, this is a sensationally moving production of Puccini’s masterpiece that will have you gripped from beginning to end.

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