Aged Madame Butterfly Still Delights the Eye:Latvian Production of Puccini Classic

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Latvian National Opera, Riga, 10.6.2011 (GF)


Original Direction by Sofya Maslovskaya
Revival Direction by Vladimirs Okuņs
Original Sets and Costumes by Eduards Vītols
Revival Set Designer: Juris Salmanis
Revival Costume Designer: Kristine Pasternaka


Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly):   Aleksandra Chacinska
Pinkerton: Andris Ludvigs
Suzuki: Olga Jakoļeva
Sharpless: Jānis Apeinis
Kate: Evija Martinsone
Goro: Guntars Ruņgis
Prince Yamadori: Nauris Puntulis
Bonzo: Romāns Poļisadovs
Dolore (Cio-Cio San’s child): Sofija Ulanova

Latvian National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Hirofumi Yoshida

Within the framework of the 2011 Riga Opera Festival, I had the opportunity to see one of the longest running opera productions in the world, Madama Butterfly. It was originally premiered on 27 May 1925 and has been revived eight times under various conductors and directors but it has always retained the original sets and costumes more or less intact, though some modifications have obviously been made since there is a revival set designer and ditto costume designer listed.

It is quite fascinating to see a production of this age still in use. The only comparable production I can remember seeing was the original Aida at the Arena di Verona, which was first shown in 1914. As is that production, this Butterfly is a delight to the eye. Set in the late 19th century, it is very realistic, very Japanese and very beautiful. I imagine today’s technique has even better possibilities for evocative lighting, and the atmosphere is hauntingly tangible. Butterfly herself and Suzuki move in the humble manner that was the general Asian way when confronted with people from the West. At any rate, it gives a sense of authenticity. Kate Pinkerton is almost too haughty in her manners by comparison, but that was probably also the original idea. I believe that a lot of opera lovers – including myself – don’t feel that this is a dated production, but rather an authentic one, or timeless, if you prefer that expression. I also think it’s a brave decision on behalf of the Latvian National Opera to stick to this beautiful staging. About four years ago I saw a Traviata in Riga in the same mould – very attractive. I am afraid I wasn’t able to find any high-solution pictures of this production, but recommend that readers visit the Latvian National Opera’s homepage for proof.

Further authenticity is provided through the choice of a Japanese conductor. Hirofumi Yoshida has studied in Japan and Europe and is today Music Director at Mantua Opera. His tempos were on the fast side, which I do prefer to the over-sentimentalization that some conductors’ slower readings unfailingly result in. Sentimental the opera certainly is, but it is tempered when the music is kept on the move and Mr Yoshida told us very distinctly in the orchestral prelude that he wanted the rhythms to be incisive and alive. I have heard the Latvian National Opera Orchestra on several occasions and expected good playing, which they also provided.

Of all Puccini’s operas Madama Butterfly is the one most dominated by the leading soprano. Pinkerton, the tenor, has a lot to sing in the first act, including that long and enormously charged love duet that concludes the act. But then he is absent during the second act and only briefly appears in the third, mainly to sing his aria O fiorito asil. Sharpless, the baritone, is present in all three acts, but is in the main a secondary character, and Suzuki has some central scenes in both act II and III, but the focus is very much on Butterfly.

The young Polish soprano Aleksandra Chacinska turned out to be a very accomplished singer with a large voice of lirico-spinto type, not quite in the Renata Tebaldi mould, but not far from it, and besides strong and confident singing she was also a brilliant actress, and a gifted comedian as well in the second act, where she brought home a great deal of laughter from the audience. But Butterfly is basically a tragic character and the final act was truly heart-rending. She didn’t stab herself in full view of the audience – she hid behind a piece of furniture, but it was all very emotional nonetheless. Her rapport with Olga Jakoleva’s Suzuki was excellent, and the latter’s fruity mezzo-soprano matched Ms Chacinska’s soprano beautifully in the cherry blossom duet.

Andris Ludvigs’ Pinkerton began a little hesitantly, but he soon warmed and delivered tenor brilliance to match his Butterfly. Janis Apeinis’ somewhat dry baritone timbre was well suited to this rather stiff Sharpless, who still stood out as a warm and sensitive individual. In the comprimario roles the experienced Guntars Rungis’ Goro was excellent and Nauris Puntulis sported a fine bass voice in the role of Prince Yamadori. Little Sofija Ulanova as Butterfly’s child should also be mentioned. After the performance the ensemble wanted her to take a bow all alone but she turned back halfway. Quite a touching finale to a touching performance.


Göran Forsling