Music: Giacomo Puccini
Libretto:Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Original Director:Sir David McVicar
Director: Elaine Kidd
Conductor: Marco Guidarini
Reviewer: Val Baskott
Puccini’s great masterpieceMadama Butterflyneeds little introduction. The Humming Chorus and Un bel diare fully absorbed into popular culture, and the moving theme of an exploited and deserted vulnerable girl still resonates today. Perhaps playing safe, or pragmatically backing a winner, Scottish Opera have revived Sir David McVicars’s stylish classic production first staged in 2000 with a stunning set designed by Yannis Thavoris.
The opera is set in 1904 Japan, fifty years after a peace treaty between America and Japan, at a time when US navy personnel come and go. Brokered by Goro, Lieutenant Pinkerton has arranged to take the geisha Cio-Cio-San, Butterfly, only 15, as his Japanese wife on the same basis as he rents his house, until he goes home and marries an American girl. Sharpless, the American consul, remonstrates that Butterfly may regard the marriage more seriously. After the wedding she is abandoned by her family and left alone with Pinkerton and her loving servant Suzuki. Pinkerton consoles her and she says all is well as long as she has love. Of course it all ends badly. He goes off, marries his American, Kate. Butterfly has a child, the money begins to run out, and she still believes he’ll come back. Three years on Sharpless gets a letter from Pinkerton. Butterfly is so overjoyed that he cannot tell her the truth. He asks what she might do if Pinkerton does not return. She says she’ll die but then reveals her blonde, blue–eyed son, and asks Sharpless to tell Pinkerton, Seeing Pinkerton’s ship arrive Butterfly and Suzuki bedeck the house for his return. After an all night vigil and no Pinkerton, Butterfly rests while meantime Pinkerton and Sharpless recruit Suzuki to persuade Butterfly to give up the child to Kate’s care, but Pinkerton is full of remorse and rushes away. Butterfly wakens and seeing Sharpless with Kate guesses the truth, and knowing her fate chooses to let the boy go if Pinkerton himself will come back for him. She takes her father’s knife, blindfolds the child and kills herself with her father’s knife. Pinkerton returns.
This sacrificial tale, a retelling of a retelling which captured Puccini’s creative genius at the height of Japonisme, is underpinned by a tremendous score utilising tonal elements of Japanese music and the American and Japanese anthems to give colour to the characters. This is mood music at its best to wring the heartstrings, from tranquil to passionate, joy to tragedy. Marco Guidarini and the orchestra did full justice to the score, only just occasionally drowning out passionate moments.Coro a Bocca Chiusa,the Humming Chorus was engrossing but voices were not quite balanced and a little hesitant.
Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee’s Butterfly is a joy to watch and listen to, growing in character from a shy infatuated girl to mature woman. Her optimistic conviction shines through inUn bel diand her anguished farewell to the boy is heartbreaking. Her voice has silk, silver and steel as needed. José Ferrero’s Pinkerton is robust, lyrical in the long impassioned love duet and when expressing remorse. It is a difficult character to make much of, and the callous opening arias are less convincing. Christopher Purves is outstanding as Sharpless, endowing him with great humanity.He’s seen it all before, but is visibly touched by Butterfly’s extreme youth and vulnerability. Hanna Hipp’s Suzuki is warm and supportive, her voice blending in the flower duet, and deeply moving when she realises her mistress’s fate. Both are perfect foils for Hye-Youn Lee’s brilliance. Adrian Thompson provided a little comic relief as Goro.
Overall this was crowd-pleasing performance with some memorable musical high spots, and excellent emerging artists to watch out for.
Runs: Edinburgh 17thMay, Glasgow fromMay 21then touring.
Image: K. K. Dundas