In a full-bodied new production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, opening this year's Glyndebourne Festival Opera, are audible echoes of the same composer's Tosca, composed four years earlier. For while the text of the Japanese-set opera is delicately strewn with petals and blossom, at its heart are cruelty and suicide.
Annilese Miskimmon, directing, has made much of a truth in the piece that is often overlooked: the Japanese teenage bride of US naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton is infatuated with him, and therefore by association with all things American.
Miskimmon updates the opera to the Fifties, and when we see Butterfly three years after her marriage, patiently waiting for her husband to anchor once more in Nagasaki harbour, she wears not the kimono of her wedding day, but a Jackie Kennedy-style fitted suit. In Act Three Pinkerton's new, 'real', American wife will wear a similar number, in red.
Butterfly's bungalow too, in Nicky Shaw's design, is an all-American home, complete with radiogram and back copies of Life magazine. But it is not enough to create a Richard Hamilton-style interior: antique traditions of subservience lead Butterfly to give way to her spineless, faithless husband's whim to take away the child she bears in his absence, to what he arrogantly perceives as a better, i.e. American, life.
As Cio-Cio-San, the Butterfly of the title, Moldovan soprano Olga Busuioc grows up fast. Married, deserted and a mother in short order, with vocal depth and colour to illustrate her too early maturity. She brings to the strong Act Two her aria Un bel dì vedremo (One fine day), in which she maintains that her husband will return, a passionate, Tosca-like edge and determination, rather than the dreamy vision favoured by some sopranos.
Loyally at her side, with a full life's experience, is companion Suzuki, US mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong bringing the first-night house down with her heart-felt, soulful tone.
American tenor Joshua Guerrero is a suitably lightweight Pinkerton, aided and abetted by consul Sharpless (Michael Sumuel, characterful but, confusingly, sharp), and matchmaker Goro (Carlo Bosi), running a heartless production line of hasty post-war splicings.
And while other, more minor characters are dimly drawn, the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Omar Meir Wellber cut a dash, driving the opera's rash actions, peppering them with notable solo work. The magnificent Glyndebourne Chorus felt a fraction underpowered on opening night, and confining the first act to the marriage office, rather than moving to Butterfly's residence, prevented us from seeing how temporarily bewitched Pinkerton is by the charm of Japanese living.
This is Glyndebourne's first production of Madama Butterfly in its 80-plus years. (See The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York's for the early history.) It makes a compelling case for more Puccini, whose operas, however grandly staged elsewhere, are, in essence, intimate pieces that suit a house where psychological insights are crystal clear.
Madama Butterfly is sung in Italian with English surtitles. It is relayed live to cinemas across London on 21 June. Tickets are available for some performances. Phone 01273 815000 for daily returns.
|What||Puccini's Madama Butterfly review , Glyndebourne Festival Opera|
|Where||Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex, BN8 5UU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Victoria (underground)|
19 May 18 – 18 Jul 18, times vary; 17 performances lasting four hours, including long dinner interval
|Price||£20 - £260|
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|