Latvian Kristine Opolais triumphs as Madama Butterfly at Covent Garden

Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Andris Nelsons. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. 25.7.2011 (JPr)

Valenti as Pinkerton and Opolais as Butterfly - Picture Mike Hoban

It is difficult in a single review to address significant issues of the current Royal Opera regime; these are casting and, most significantly, the standard of performance under the music director, Antonio Pappano. The first problem will be alluded to later when you read on but as for the second issue it is increasing apparent that often when Maestro Pappano is not conducting evenings of standard opera repertoire can be much more memorable. As evidence for the prosecution there has been some wonderful Wagner and Verdi conducted by Semyon Bychkov and now Andris Nelsons excels with this stunning Madama Butterfly that is being staged at the same time as a lacklustre Tosca conducted by Pappano himself. Pappano is a tremendous communicator and advocate for the enjoyment of opera and probably unsurpassed in some music but – in my opinion – I am concerned that most of the greater evenings in recent years at Covent Garden often are conducted by someone other than him.

Despite one major reservation if there has been a finer Butterfly in living memory than this one I would have loved to have been there. What is the reservation? That relates to another current problem at Covent Garden … casting. Under Pappano there was a very disappointing Scarpia and here – in a performance that had the finest (replacement) Butterfly I’m ever likely to hear and see – there was also the worst Pinkerton. It must be apparent during rehearsals how artists are performing and surely there must be some action that could be taken.

I can appreciate voices get tired when all the travelling and performing takes its toll – or that the singers are contracted far in advance and in better days but … surely friends, colleagues or agents could say something to safeguard their artists’ future. James Valenti had no announcement made for him prior to the performance so has to be judged on what he did and that proved inadequate for the Covent Garden stage. The higher his un-Italianate voice went the tighter and thinner became his sound and more painful it seemed for him to squeeze something out. He looks the part of an American Naval Lieutenant. He is American anyway, very tall and imposing in his uniform but was clearly struggling and it made what should be the glorious love duet Viene la sera at the culmination of Act I almost a solo for Butterfly. That he returned in Act III to do more justice to Addio, fiorito asil when he cannot face seeing the girl – and mother of his child – he has deserted was probably because the strain he was showing was quite apt for his character’s plight.

Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser returned for this fourth revival of their 2003 production; it was clear that it was being staged again with great care and attention to detail. Agostino Cavalca costumes are appropriately colourful and Christian Fenouillat’s sets look like almost every other ‘traditional’ Madama Butterfly; large sliding doors, panels and blinds, lots of lilac blossom and wisteria. Early on there is a striking panorama of Nagasaki harbour and later the very familiar starry night for the duet. In Act II Butterfly welcomes the consul, Sharpless, to her ‘American’ home but there are still only mats to kneel on and no chairs. On the floor of the house some intriguing lighting effects (by Christophe Forey) appear that might have been lost on those in the stalls: it looks very much like the rays from a WWII Japanese flag except they are yellow and not red; they seem to break and come together in various patterns as the drama proceeds.

Caurier and Leiser do not neglect the tale’s darker aspects and Sharpless seems suitably disgusted by Pinkerton’s desire for a child bride, as well as, his boorish disregard for Japanese customs. Also it is clear how Suzuki knows all along that he will not be returning but because of her loyalty to her mistress cannot tell her.

Meeting the toughest of challenges and becoming a star in this country overnight is Kristīne Opolais’s Cio-Cio-San, the geisha ‘Butterfly’. The Latvian soprano – who is the partner of her compatriot Andris Nelsons – is making her debut at Covent Garden because of Patricia Racette’s withdrawal from the role. If a little hesitant with her first difficult entry she impresses throughout with the power and colour of her voice and the way it never fails to bloom and surmount the crest of Puccini’s orchestral climaxes. Her Un bel di was deeply affecting as was her subsequent portrayal of a self-deluded abandon bride. Her final moments as she responds to Pinkerton’s belated return after she has committed hari-kari and stumbles up the stage fluttering her kimonoed arms like a ‘real’ large dying butterfly is something that I will file along with some of the other greatest moments from my time watching opera.

Other pluses include Helen Schneidermann, as a meekly stoic Suzuki, and Anthony Michaels-Moore was a bluff, warm-hearted and sympathetic Sharpless; two thankless roles that are in very safe hands. As often happens the even smaller roles are perfectly integrated into the overall performance; ZhengZhong Zhou from the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme makes a dignified Prince Yamadori and Jeremy White’s Bonze is more genuinely terrifying than most. After more than 900 performances for The Royal Opera Robin Leggate’s Goro mark his final stage appearances and his interventions as the fussy marriage broker are typically nuanced.

I am looking forward to hearing Maestro Nelsons’ Lohengrin soon again at Bayreuth but it seems he also has a special way with Puccini and there is a generous amount of orchestral detail but he never sacrifices the overall arch and thrust of the melodic line. Probably mindful of his tenor’s limitations he seemed to rush somewhat through Act I but the final moments were dwelt on with emotional conviction and respect and he drew an impressive round, full and rich sound from his impeccable orchestra. It was great to experience this searing tragedy – albeit a warhorse – as if through fresh ears.

Jim Pritchard

Ms Opolais sings Butterfly until 4 July and then two other sopranos share the role, please go to