PUCCINI Madama Butterfly (Pappano)
This 2017 revival was the first time Antonio Pappano had conducted Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s Royal Opera production of Madama Butterfly since it was unveiled in 2003. The reason? Ermonela Jaho. The Albanian soprano is one of the great singing actresses of our time. Her Suor Angelica (in Puccini’s Il trittico) ripped London audiences – and Jaho herself – to shreds. Her portrayal of the tragic Cio-Cio-San is no less moving.
Watching the performance on Blu ray, one appreciates her incredibly subtle acting: the coy, wide-eyed teenager during her wedding to Marcelo Puente’s feckless Pinkerton; the defiant look of absolute belief that he will return for her and their son; her very real tears during the Humming Chorus vigil. Here, one appreciates that in Act 2 – just three years later – Butterfly is still a teenager; her description of how the US judiciary throws out divorce cases is touchingly naive. Her suicide is devastating, flapping her ‘wings’ in her death throes set before a giant branch of weeping cherry blossoms, and had me in pieces, both in the house and here on screen. Jaho’s vocal performance is touching. Hers is not a sumptuous soprano, glossing Puccini’s rich lyric lines, but the colours she brings to her portrayal are astonishing, scaling ‘Un bel dì’ down to the merest thread.
Jaho is well supported by Elizabeth DeShong’s feisty, sympathetic Suzuki. Their Flower Duet is quite beautifully sung. The rest of the cast is mostly very fine: a reliable, if vocally dry, Sharpless from Scott Hendricks; Carlo Bosi’s oily Goro; Yuriy Yurchuk’s towering Yamadori. I wish I liked Puente’s Pinkerton more. His dashing looks suit the part but his tenor has a distracting wobble under pressure which can sound uncomfortably strangled in higher passages. Pappano – arguably today’s greatest Puccinian conductor – draws ardent playing from the ROH Orchestra, superbly detailed in its commentaries.
Leiser and Caurier’s gimmick-free production is well known, both directors returning for this revival. Some critics find it a bit kitsch, but it works for me. Local colour is glimpsed through the winding paper windows of their spartan set – candyfloss pink blossoms, Nagasaki Harbour – the backdrop falling away dramatically for the furious entrance of the Bonze, denouncing Cio-Cio-San for abandoning her religion to adopt Christianity. The production’s simplicity allows one to focus on the central performances and, with a Butterfly as heartbreaking as Ermonela Jaho’s, it serves its purpose handsomely.