Puccini's classic opera is revived as part of Opera Holland Park's new season by director Paul Higgins
Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton may be a piece of work, but a singer who plays him deserves better than the pantomime boos that greeted Joseph Wolverton's appearance at the first-night curtain call. When sections of an audience fail to distinguish between a player and his character the outcome can, as here, be profoundly disrespectful.
Let Wolverton take it as a compliment, though, for his interpretation of Pinkerton as a middle-aged sex tourist of a US Naval officer (Cio-Cio-San is only fifteen, let us remember) struck a powerful chord. The American tenor's attractive voice may have promised more than it delivered – his golden notes grew constricted during sustained passages, the very times when they should bloom – but in the great orgasmic duet in Act One he created a powerful distinction between love and lust.
The plot of Madama Butterfly is known to a broad theatre audience through its reworking as Miss Saigon (we were, ironically, spared the helicopter racket that had intruded on the opening of Cav & Pag at this address a few nights earlier), with a heroine whose tragedy can touch the heart and appal the spirit. Anne Sophie Duprels achieved this and more: her utterly believable Cio-Cio-San was initially presented as a demurely ritualised Japanese Geisha, while her subsequent, pathetically approximated attempts to westernise her appearance during Pinkerton's absence somehow freed her to express despair, when it came, without constraint.
Duprels sang as she acted, with intense beauty and harrowing dramatic commitment. Every fibre of her being was engaged in her role and the illusion of a guileless Japanese child-woman (which after all takes some buying) was absolute. She used her gorgeous, creamy-rich soprano to infuse her character with an utterly heartbreaking vulnerability.
Paul Higgins' semi-naturalistic period production utilises the full width of the OHP stage yet cunningly draws the attention onto one small thrust area. In Neil Irish's unpretentious designs this narrow platform projects forward from an imposing Japanese house, raised high on stilts above the normal stage, with the City of London Sinfonia clustered immediately below it. This concentration of the action solves at a stroke the problems of focus, aural as well as visual, that Holland Park's breadth can sometimes present for an audience.
Manlio Benzi, who conducted the Mascagni-Puccini double bill at OHP last year, confirmed his calibre with a sweeping yet urgent account of Puccini's ultra-romantic score that came as close as dammit to ideal. He was blest with a first-rate pool of supporting singers including Patricia Orr's protective Suzuki , Robert Burt's cross-dressing marriage broker Goro and David Stephenson's subtle and emotionally torn Sharpless. But however fine the rest of them were, this was Duprels' show – and she stole it.