Who is to blame for the death of Cio-Cio-San? In the past few years Lieutenant Pinkerton has been less often presented as the romantic hero gone wrong than as a hard-hearted practitioner of America’s emotional imperialism. In the version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly now preferred by Opera North the libretto makes clear that he plans to be “properly” married back in the States and defines the provisional role of the geisha wife.
In Tim Albery’s revival of his 2007 production, while Pinkerton is not let off the hook, the balance shifts for two reasons. The first is American tenor Noah Stewart. As well as singing with great freedom and passion he is young, vigorous and impetuous. He knows he’s lucky to be where he is and, when he sings so vibrantly of his love in the Act 1 duet, he is totally sincere: he is young enough to forget temporarily the terms of the deal. It is almost (not quite) possible to sympathise with his later cowardice. The second change is in the role of Goro, the marriage broker. Rather than a fussily comic nuisance, he becomes a sleazy version of Private Walker in Daniel Norman’s acute and detailed performance.
So the blame rests with an unhealthy collusion between East and West – and poor Consul Sharpless is in the firing line! Without the power to do more than warn Pinkerton, Sharpless is helpless, but complicit – all of which is conveyed in the performance of Peter Savidge, refined over several Opera North Butterflies, urbane, but tormented, his suave, soft-grained baritone exuding sympathy in every note.
The tragedy of Cio-Cio-San is intensified by being given a context, rather than being generated only by a few heart-stopping arias. The heart-stopping arias are necessary, of course, and Anne-Sophie Duprels delivers! Her voice seems much fuller than in her previous Butterfly with the company, her singing growing in power, authority and urgency along with her character, but in Albery’s production the human details count for as much. The scene between Butterfly, adopted American, and Sharpless, politely following Japanese custom, is as moving as it is witty. Ann Taylor’s Suzuki echoes her mistress devotedly, from self-effacing servant, gradually shaking off inhibitions of movement and emotion, to tigerish defender of Cio-Cio-San’s happiness.
Quaintness and sentimentality have their place in Madama Butterfly and in this production they are kept firmly in it. The chorus of friends and relations is suitably picturesque (costumes Ana Jebens) and local colour is nicely exploited in The Bonze (luxury casting in Andrew Greenan) and Paul Gibson’s comically preening Yamadori, but the hard core of the story is never compromised. And driving the whole thing on is the young Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni. On first night there was an initial danger that he would give the orchestra its head, producing tremendously exciting playing, sometimes at the expense of balance, but things settled and the fact that is a Butterfly as full of tension as of pathos is down to Rustioni as well as Albery.