The Royal Opera revives a ‘more authentic’ Madama Butterfly with mixed results

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Dan Ettinger (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 14.6.2022. (MB)

Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San) © Yasuko Kageyama

Directors – Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier
Revival director – Daniel Dooner
Set designs – Christian Fenouillat
Costumes – Agostino Cavalca
Lighting – Christophe Forey

Pinkerton – Freddie De Tommaso
Goro – Alexander Kravets
Suzuki – Patricia Bardon
Sharpless – Lucas Meachem
Cio-Cio-San – Lianna Haroutounian
Imperial Commissioner – Dawid Kimberg
Official Registrar – Nigel Cliffe
Cio-Cio-San’s Mother – Eryl Royle
Uncle Yaukusidé – Andrew O’Connor
Cousin – Amy Catt
Aunt – Kiera LynessBonze – Jeremy White
Dolore – Leo Stokkland-Baker
Prince Yamadori – Alan Pingarrón
Kate Pinkerton – Rachel Lloyd

‘In the 21st century, staging Madama Butterfly poses questions for any opera house. The opera’s essence is a violent collision between two cultures. But how to represent another culture on stage with truth and sensitivity? In reviving Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s classic production, we have involved Japanese practitioners and academics to work towards a Butterfly both true to the spirit of the original and more authentic in its representation of Japan.’

Not perfect, far from it; one could readily pick holes in that section of the programme’s ‘welcome’ statement from Oliver Mears and Antonio Pappano. For instance, it is at least debatable, to my mind rather more than that, that the work’s ‘essence’ is something else entirely. Moreover, if the Royal Opera were honest about it — this would be true of pretty much every opera company on the planet — staging such a work and production did not really ‘pose questions’ until very recently indeed in the twenty-first century. It is good, though, to see the opera world showing some such development, and we should be gracious about that: we all, after all, have a long, long way to go in working towards a more racially (and otherwise) just society.

The Royal Opera’s Madama Butterfly © Yasuko Kageyama

I do not recall having seen the production before, so cannot comment on how noticeable the changes are. I suspect some of them would have passed me by, had I not been advised what to look for, though that doubtless says more about my (ignorant) standpoint than anything else. Costumes, we read, have undergone modification to make them more of the period in which the production is set, not least in terms of their signification of social status. Make-up has also been modified, in order to appear less caricatured, more ‘natural’ or at least appropriate. This I can see from looking at pictures from previous outings. Otherwise, Leiser and Caurier’s production seems to me ‘classic’ only in the sense of standing firmly in the middle of the road: a degree of abstraction, more as style than concept, remaining essentially realist; no Zeffirelli horror, but nothing to scare the Daily Mail horses either. Christophe Forey’s lighting guides the action, subtly and more starkly. And revival director Daniel Dooner does a good job guiding his forces on stage, although the heroine’s demise proved unfortunate.

That final rolling around on stage was an extreme conclusion to a performance from Lianna Haroutounian that was throughout more strong than subtle. I am not sure it was especially in keeping with the avowed intentions of this revision, but it did no especial harm. Freddie De Tommaso’s Pinkerton also tended towards the broad-brush, albeit with greater attention to detail: a perfectly decent, if not especially illuminating, performance. I presume a pronounced lachrymose tendency in the third act to have been an interpretative decision, just in case one did not loath the character enough; the self-pity did the trick, in any case. Patricia Bardon’s Suzuki was constant and compassionate, very much what one expected — and wanted — to hear. For me, Lucas Meachem’s Sharpless was the pick of the bunch, his thoughtful, variegated performance unquestionably founded in the text. The Royal Opera Chorus was not on its best form, comparisons with Covent Garden’s recent Lohengrin again unfortunate.

Not nearly so unfortunate, though, as the conducting. In the programme, we also read Mears and Pappano write, ‘We are thrilled to welcome back Dan Ettinger to conduct.’ They could hardly say they had been pained to do so, but leaving out Ettinger altogether would have been preferable. It is difficult to imagine anyone having been thrilled with the results, at any rate. Ettinger’s sole advantage, relatively speaking, was that he was not Daniel Oren: another, frankly atrocious conductor Covent Garden engages with bewildering frequency. This was bad, but perhaps not quite so bad. Quite what it is with some such figures I do not know; maybe it is the demands of artist management companies. Whatever it is, houses should stand firm. For Ettinger’s perverse achievement in ridding most of Puccini’s score, especially an interminable first act, of any interest, let alone drama, was not something any house should welcome. The rest was loud, crude, weirdly devoid of harmonic rhythm, and often simply of harmonic, let alone structural, interest.

If work and production are to be further re-evaluated, then having someone capable of leading such re-evaluation from the pit would help; enlisting someone capable of holding one’s attention would be a bare minimum. Better still, consider a staging that engages more deeply with the racial and sexual violence, as well as the devastating imperialism, that lie at this opera’s heart (or lack thereof).

Mark Berry

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