A further revival of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s Madama Butterfly is an exhilarating operatic evening

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Kevin John Edusei (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 14.3.2024. (MM-B)

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s Madama Butterfly © Marc Brenner

I must admit I am not Puccini’s biggest fan. I do think some of his music is beautiful but his scores do not speak to me in the same way that Mozart’s or Verdi’s do. My fault and not the composer’s.

Many people consider Madama Butterfly Puccini’s best and most beautiful opera. It’s arguable but personally I think his masterpiece is Tosca. However, I do have a special relationship with Madama Butterfly. It is the work that got me hooked on opera. My father, an opera lover and once a singer himself, took me to my first live opera when I was twelve years old – a performance of Madama Butterfly. Growing up in Portugal opera and ballet were mostly on television when there was anything at all, but on that particular year the Opera Company of the Teatro de São Carlos in Lisbon – the opera house of the Portuguese capital – did for the first time ever a tour around the country, staging Madama Butterfly in the small theatres of provincial towns all throughout Portugal. For me, it was an unforgettable experience. There were no such things as surtitles then so my father summarised the story before the performance started. I did not understand the words but the beauty of the voices and the music there, live, in front of me, took my breath away. The experience was unforgettable. I fell in love with opera then and have been ever since.

It was therefore with some excitement and anticipation that I travelled to London yesterday to see and hear this production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly by the duo Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, receiving its tenth revival at the Royal Opera House this spring. Two different casts share the lead roles. The production is very attractive, though simple, but its simplicity draws the audience to the characters and the limited world of Butterfly who never leaves Japan or travels outside of her house and garden. The settings are pretty and, according to programme notes, based on European images of nineteenth-century Japan. The Japanese world is convincing and well recreated from what I know of Japan. Like Puccini and his librettists – Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica – I haven’t travelled to Japan. The style of the house, the light and colours of the flowers do seem authentic Japanese, judging from modern day photos and films about the country.

Revival director Daisy Evans does justice to the original directors and creators, as well as an outstanding job bringing it all to life. Set, costume and lighting designs by respectively Christian Fenouillat, Agostino Cavalca and Christophe Forey are all brilliant, effectively and gorgeously contributing to an elegant production that is also warm, moving and graceful. It pleases the eye and the soul, underlining and enhancing the score and the singing.

Asmik Grigorian (Cio-Cio-San) © Marc Brenner

Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian sang the role of Cio-Cio-San, or the Butterfly of the title, on the opening night of this run of the opera. Grigorian is an extraordinary singer and her Butterfly is nothing short of memorable. Her rich, warm soprano is perfect for the part. The much-anticipated Un bel dì vedremo – the opera’s most celebrated and most beautiful aria – was mesmerising. For me, time stood still. There was nothing and no one but Puccini’s exquisitely poignant music and Grigorian’s astonishing instrument. Her voice soars above the orchestra with a striking easiness. Even in her soft legato lines or when she sings pianissimo you can still hear her clearly, as she has an outstanding voice projection technique. Her high notes are always warm and seem to explode out of nowhere. She only needs to open her mouth. Dramatically she is very expressive, with excellent acting skills. We feel her genuine, pure love for Pinkerton each step of the way, her unbreakable loyalty, her dignity and most of all, as she realises his betrayal, her pain and suffering. No one can stay indifferent or unmoved. A good many people in the audience, me included, were deeply touched and some eyes unable to stay dry. Asmik Grigorian set the barre very high and delivered a supreme, sublime and beautiful performance as Cio-Cio-San. Though the cast are all first rate, it must be said that she is head and shoulders above all others.

Mexican-American tenor Joshua Guerrero was exceptionally good as Pinkerton. He was in fine voice and is a skilled actor. His Pinkerton is despicable, unworthy and a clear coward. One almost wants to punch his face. How dare he think he is entitled to have his pleasure and then simply abandon Butterfly or that his actions will have no consequences? It is impossible not to feel outraged. Pinkerton’s villainy was so well expressed that when Guerrero bowed to the public there were a few good-humoured and appreciative boos – not because he wasn’t excellent but because his unpleasant Pinkerton was so convincing.

China’s Hongni Wu, as Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid, is quite splendid. Her mezzo-soprano is full, colourful and she delivers a convincing performance, especially in her tenderness and maternal feelings for Butterfly. Estonian baritone Lauri Vasar makes for a first class Sharpless, the American consul. His voice is very warm and round, his feelings well expressed. We, the audience, clearly grasp his internal struggle. He isn’t happy with Pinkerton actions and nearly despises himself for having to deliver negative messages to Butterfly, knowing full well she will be devastated.

The minor roles of the opera are all well cast, solidly sung and delivered with top quality. A special mention here for Jette Parker Artist Josef Jeongmeen Ahn who stood out as Prince Yamadori, Butterfly’s rich suiter.

Young German conductor Kevin John Edusei demonstrated great affinity for Puccini’s score, just as he did in his Royal Opera House debut with La bohème in 2022. His direction is sympathetic to the singers. He extracts a great dramatic sound from the orchestra and appeared to have a good rapport with the musicians. His and the orchestra’s delivery of the beautiful Coro a bocca chiusa (the famous humming chorus) was supremely delicate, moving and a thing of true beauty.

The first night of this run of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was an exhilarating evening, with beautiful orchestra performances and supreme singing. From my personal perspective, it also did not disappoint, reminding me how and why I fell in love with opera, after having watched and listened to that other Madama Butterfly all those years ago in Portugal when still a child.

Margarida Mota-Bull

Directors – Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier
Revival Director – Daisy Evans
Set designer – Christian Fenouillat
Costume designer – Agostino Cavalca
Lighting designer – Christophe Forey
Chorus director – William Spaulding

Cio-Cio-San – Asmik Grigorian
Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton – Joshua Guerrero
Suzuki – Hongni Wu
Sharpless – Lauri Vasar
Goro – Ya-Chung Huang
Imperial Commissioner – Romanas Kudriašovas
Official Registrar – Lee Hickenbottom
Cio-Cio-San’s Mother – Eryl Royle
Uncle Yakusidé – Andrew O’Connor
Cousin – Amy Catt
Aunt – Kiera Lyness
The Bonze – Jeremy White
Dolore – Claudia Fleming
Prince Yamadori – Josef Jeongmeen Ahn
Kate Pinkerton – Veena Akama-Makia
Actors – John Kamau, Bao Tieu

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