PUCCINI Madama Butterfly (Wellber)
Forget the cherry blossom and other japonaiserie, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Glyndebourne focuses on the seedier side of the story – in Act 1, at least – in Annilese Miskimmon’s production. It was unveiled in 2016 for the Glyndebourne Tour before opening the main festival last summer.
Miskimmon shifts the action to post-war Japan, Act 1 set not in the little house with sliding paper doors that Pinkerton has rented – just like his bride – but in downtown Nagasaki, where sailors are signing up to ‘quickie’ weddings with the local girls. Goro’s marriage-broking service is located next to a tattoo parlour and sailors file in and out to get hitched. Pinkerton puts his feet up on the desk, unable to take it seriously at all. Pathé newsreel footage shows Japanese war brides in the early 1950s – a miscalculation, I feel, as Pinkerton never had any intention of taking his bride back home to the United States. It’s an unsentimental approach. Just when you think Miskimmon is succumbing to Puccini’s ecstatic love duet – the walls opening out to reveal a starlit sky – Goro enters, counting his profits.
After this sharp, cynical opening act, the rest of Miskimmon’s staging is disappointingly conventional. We are outside Pinkerton’s house, which Cio-Cio-San has turned into an all-American home, surrounded by silhouetted trees. To ram home the point, she and Suzuki collect flowers in a huge ‘Stars and Stripes’. The suicide is well handled, Cio-Cio-San interrupted by the sudden appearance of her son, whom she gives a warship to play with.
The cast is solid without being outstanding. Moldovan soprano Olga Busuioc, a pupil of Mirella Freni, sings well, with ample tone, her interpretation having grown during the run at Glyndebourne. Joshua Guerrero comes across well vocally as Pinkerton – he sounded under-powered in the house – and there’s even sympathy for his laddish naval officer when he pours out his regret in ‘Addio, fiorito asil’. Michael Sumuel makes little of the role of Sharpless, found wanting in his upper register, but Carlo Bosi is terrific as the seedy Goro. The finest singer here is Elizabeth DeShong as a sincere, affecting Suzuki, her plum tones ripe and round. Omer Meir Wellber conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a similarly ripe performance, alert and dramatic to Puccini’s score, but never overwhelming his singers.
This recording doesn’t displace the recent Royal Opera version with Antonio Pappano conducting a starry cast – led by Ermonela Jaho’s affecting Cio-Cio-San and also featuring DeShong – but is worth seeing, especially for its provocative Act 1.