Friday, 14 April 2017

A Butterfly that takes flight for the heights

Over the years, Puccini might have been scorned by some as penning scandalous operas, but his works hold four spots in the top 25 operas performed globally. Only Verdi has more entries.

Scoff at the plots if you want, but these works are much loved.

At number six is Madama Butterfly, currently enjoying a run at the Royal Opera House and the latest stop on my own operatic journey.

The plot is wafer thin: US naval officer marries teenage Japanese woman, gets her pregnant, leaves, returns three years later with American wife and demands they take the child, leaving her to kill herself.

Based on real events, part of its power is that however easily and quickly you can outline that story, there is far more to it than simple melodrama.

At the core of events is the callous nature of US imperialism (and imperialism and colonialism in general) and its inherent racism.

Even before we see Butterfly herself, Pinkerton has made it clear that theirs will be a marriage of convenience until he finds a ‘proper’ American wife, and that he regards Japanese customs around contracts and divorce as being amusingly easy to subvert to his whims.

Butterfly has converted to Christianity secretly before the wedding, taking her impending marriage incredibly seriously and determined to fully become American. Yet not only has Pinkerton no intention of taking her to the US, her own family, on discovering her conversion, disown her.

Here then are ideas to contemplate about the interaction of cultures.

Ermonela Jaho – described by The Economist as one of the world’s most acclaimed soporanos – is simply wonderful as the eponymous Butterfly, conveying the necessary vulnerability of the character, but without overdoing the sense of victimhood or making her na├»ve faith in Pinkerton seem unbelievable.

Her singing is simply gorgeous – and Un be di vedremo, when she explains how she believes that, one fine day, Pinkerton will return to her, is one of those moments when the goosebumps rush across the skin and the eyes prick.

Marcelo Puente as Pinkerton is a fine tenor and does well to bring some multi-dimensionality to this deeply unsympathetic character (there were one or two boos when he took his bow at the end).

And Elizabeth DeShong is also excellent as Butterfly’s loyal servant Suzuki.

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production is excellent, as is Christian Fenouillat’s deceptively simple and beautiful set.

Antonio Papano and the house orchestra are bang on form in a production that is simply a joy.

You have a few chances left to see this revival (albeit without Jaho). My goodness – it’s a powerful experience that promises to stay with one for some time.

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