Puccini’s most passionate opera is not the obvious candidate for a ‘pile ’em high’ Albert Hall extravaganza. Aida or Carmen, yes, but the delicate tale of Cio-Cio San is no epic and on paper it seems doomed to flounder under the weight of its own water garden. Still, this is the fourth revival of David Freeman’s arena staging, so he must be doing something right. The thousands who emerged elated from the first night would surely agree.
The style is traditional writ large. Freeman’s technical skills are prodigious: he fills each moment with visual felicity and his management of crowd scenes is an object lesson in how to stage chorus numbers. Yet there is not a trace of directorial vanity; every small detail is attuned to the mood of the moment and serves to advance the action. Freeman allows comic interludes to leaven the prevailing desolation (Sharpless’s distaste for Japanese cigarettes is nicely done), yet he also dares to isolate Butterfly in absolute stillness during her Act 2 vigil.
The visual splendour Andrew Bridge achieves in lighting David Roger’s meticulous set is all the more breathtaking for being realised through such economical means. Nothing is gratuitous, nothing is vulgar, and by some alchemy the creative team manages to create intimacy through scale. In Act 1 it takes no more than a few lanterns, some dry ice and a handful of floating tealights to make Pinkerton and Cio-Cio San’s love duet quite overwhelming.
The production’s unbroken three-week schedule necessitates a double and, in some cases, a triple cast. The singers selected to open the run had strength in depth: Nina Yoshida Nelsen was a fiercely protective Suzuki and Louis Otey a fretful, agitated Sharpless. Both sang with clarity and close attention to the dramatic nuances of Amanda Holden’s translation. Philip O’Brien was a complex and properly dislikeable Pinkerton, although of the principals he alone was guilty of forcing his voice in that vast space. As for Mihoko Kinoshita, she was a revelation in the title role. The Albert Hall may have been packed to the rafters, but no one drew breath as she and the humming chorus made their first appearance. Kinoshita has a rich, steady soprano tone – a touch unyielding, perhaps, but radiantly beautiful – and she moved effortlessly through Butterfly’s evolving states of mind so that the eager girl of Act 1 all too convincingly became the desperate soul of the evening’s end.
So much to praise; but there is an ugly side to the Albert Hall experience. With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra booming out the grandest of grand opera performances under Oliver Gooch, the voices have to be amplified, and this is done with so much knob-twiddling and artificial reverb that the solo voices are drained of colour and bloom. Ears accustomed to natural vocal projection in the opera house soon become fatigued by the warehouse acoustic and the bingo-hall boom. It is hard to take and harder to enjoy; but never mind, this enchanting Madam Butterfly is awash with other pleasures.