Madam Butterfly (Royal Albert Hall)

Fine musicianship compromised by a bathroom acoustic as a much-loved production returns

Madam Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall
Madam Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall
© Raymond Gubbay Ltd
I have a question for the powers that be in the major houses. How is it that some singers find favour with you while others don’t? (I could say the same of directors, but that’s for another time.) How come a succession of average people with surnames ending in -i or -o return time and again while superior home-grown talent is overlooked?

The answer, I suspect, is a combination of snobbery and laziness. Take James Edwards, for example. I’ve never met him, I hold no brief for him, but 12 months ago I wrote that "his plangent timbre, at once romantic and heroic, is a rare enough beast and makes him the ideal Italianate tenor". That was at last year’s spring spectacular at the Royal Albert Hall, La bohème. Since when, nothing – until this year’s equivalent event, a revival of David Freeman‘s hugely popular staging of Puccini's Madam Butterfly.

Edwards is Pinkerton, anti-hero and all-round rotter, and he makes the best fist of the role I’ve heard in years. The voice rises easily and powerfully through an imperceptible passaggio and his acting has the throwaway bravura that only true stage animals can achieve. Edwards’s pedigree is impeccable – he cut his teeth at ENO and as a Royal Opera young artist – but his excellence is insufficiently celebrated today compared to the favoured few. Bravo to Raymond Gubbay for acknowledging it, and to Opera Holland Park for hiring him to sing two roles in Il trittico this summer.

Freeman’s production, exquisitely directed and stunningly designed by his Opera Factory compadre David Roger, more than earns its many revivals. It is full of visual beauties – a few clichés perhaps, but nothing that slips into vulgarity – and deft at exploiting the Royal Albert Hall’s arena space.

'riches in abundance'

Oliver Gooch conducts a rejuvenated Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a sweetly homogeneous chorus and some exceptional soloists (I saw one team of the three that are carrying a continuous three-week run) in a revival so fresh and well paced that the opera’s fateful conclusion hits home with a massive punch.

All this year’s interpreters of Cio-Cio-San are from South Korea, and if the others are a match for Nam-young Kim‘s tragic young Butterfly then there are riches in abundance. She captured the girl’s vulnerability and naïvety through some heart-breakingly expressive singing, despite being up against the worst amplification I’ve heard in ages.

What’s happened? Barely a month after Sound Intermedia‘s success in discreetly enhancing the Royal Opera-Roundhouse Orfeo, the Gubbay microphones take us back to the swimming baths. It’s appalling – worse than I recall in previous years – and it discredits the work done not only by Freeman and Gooch but by a fine cast that includes Catherine Hopper as Suzuki, Wyn Pencarreg as Sharpless and Michael Druiett as The Bonze.

After presenting last year’s Bohème in Italian it’s disappointing that Gubbay has reverted to English for Madam Butterfly. I can’t tell you whether Amanda Holden‘s translation is any good (it almost certainly is) because without surtitles scarcely a word was discernible anyway through the reverberant boom.

It’s easy to appreciate that some level of electronic aural boosting is unavoidable at this venue, and wiring the Albert Hall for sound must be a nightmare, but there has to be a better way than this.