The superb Asmik Grigorian is simply Mimì in a kimono in Covent Garden’s Madama Butterfly

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Kevin John Edusei (conductor). Filmed (directed by Bridget Caldwell) on 26.3.2024 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and shown at Everyman Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 1.4.2024. (JPr)

[l-r] Hongni Wu (Suzuki), Josef Jeongmeen Ahn (Yamadori), Ya-Chung Huang (Goro), Asmik Grigorian (Cio-Cio-San) and Joshua Guerrero (Pinkerton) © Marc Brenner

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production premiered at Covent Garden in 2002 and what they show us apparently drew its inspiration from nineteenth-century European images of Japan. We heard from Elle Osili-Wood – the always upbeat presenter of these opera cinema broadcasts – how ‘through a collaboration with Japanese practitioners and academics last season it’s moved to being more authentic in its representation of Japan’. Opera revisionists have in recent years made Madama Butterfly and its ‘marriage of convenience’ a particular target because of its racial stereotypes. This of course is true; more worrying is its heavy hint of sexual exploitation and paedophilia with Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) being 15 and at one point singing, ‘love me just a little, like you would a child’. There is also the ‘celebration’ – whether or not Puccini was being ironic – of the greatness of America, especially when it may soon be Trump’s America again!

However we are stuck in a time warp, the work is what it is and of the time it was written. Puccini is not allowed the revisionism available to filmmaker Clint Eastwood some years ago; his masterpiece Letters from Iwo Jima, together with its equally excellent companion film Flags of Our Fathers, presented the WWII conflict between America and Japan from both viewpoints. We appreciate, of course, nothing exactly like Madama Butterfly would be composed and be staged today. Great intellects could possibly find other things to bother themselves with, even though doubts linger.

What those ‘Japanese practitioners and academics’ seem to have done is strip the production of anything that might offend – how much was there? – and put nothing much in its place. It is basically the set – notably the small altar table – and costumes which lets us know we are in Japan. Oddly after all this we have a Cio-Cio-San who is Lithuanian and not Asian with Asmik Grigorian – a superb artist of course – basically just Mimì in a kimono! Grigorian was excellent but, fascinatingly, it was two Asian singers who caught my eye and ear, Chinese mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu as Suzuki and Taiwanese (!) tenor Ya-Chung Huang (with Korean baritone Josef Jeongmeen Ahn almost as impressive in his brief appearance as Prince Yamadori). Surprisingly elsewhere the whitening-up (!) of Jeremy White as the Bonze is still allowed: some consistency is needed I think?

Enough of this, what about the actual performance? The central feature of any ‘traditional’ Madama Butterfly must be a Japanese home with thin paper walls consisting of sliding panels. This is either fully represented or hinted at: here we have the action, such as it is, contained within three walls with panels at the back that for novelty mostly go up and down rather than side-to-side. Through the lifting panels we see Nagasaki harbour, a moonlight scene with an array of stars above, a neglected garden and cherry blossom features significantly; either on some hills or poignantly falling from a lone tree when [spoiler alert] Cio-Cio-San commits harikari at the end of the opera. As ever, and particularly in Bridget Caldwell’s close-up camerawork (which drew the cinema audience right into the unfolding tragedy) it all seems an evocative reminiscence of an historical happening.

Joshua Guerrero (Pinkerton) and Asmik Grigorian (Cio-Cio-San) © Marc Brenner

So all those close-ups, as well as the austerity of the setting, threw all the focus on to the principals and the music. I think that – apart from the odd exception – we saw performances from the leading singers they would give in any repertory revival of Butterfly with limited rehearsal time. There was still the restrained passion of the Act I love duet, despite Pinkerton’s lust for the young Cio-Cio-San being blatantly obvious and more than a little disturbing! For that infamous phrase about being loved like a child, Cio-Cio-San sensuously reveals a bare shoulder and Pinkerton’s ardour for her at the end of Act I is depicted by just a loosening of the top button of his tunic as she lies on the floor.

Perhaps because of the famous Anthony Minghella production (which Grigorian will soon star in for her Met debut) I have got used to the child, Dolore (Sorrow), displaying more Japanese features than Western ones hinting at some self-delusion on Cio-Cio-San’s part. Here he is played perfectly straight and having realised her situation, Cio-Cio-San stabs herself while the blindfolded, angelic fair-haired child (Claudia Fleming) pitifully waves a small American flag and Pinkerton sings offstage.

With his lightish baritone Lauri Vasar was a sympathetic Sharpless; he proves totally ineffectual in persuading Pinkerton from a course of action he so obviously disapproves of. Hongni Wu was an exceptional Suzuki who is intensely loyal and very fond of – and deeply concerned about – Cio-Cio-San. Wu’s vibrantly rich mezzo-soprano voice made the most of even something as small as Suzuki’s Act I evening prayer. Ya-Chung Huang was unbelievable good as the wheedling and conniving marriage broker, Goro, always with his hand out for some more money. The veteran Jeremy White returned and created a certain frisson as the Bonze denounces and disowns Cio-Cio-San in Act I. Josef Jeongmeen Ahn was the dignified and lovestruck Prince Yamadori.

Joshua Guerrero, returning to this production as Pinkerton, proves such a wrong ‘un that he was subjected to some pantomime booing at his curtain call. Overall, Guerrero gave a robustly full-throated account of a thankless role; my only criticism is that when what he had to sing got more demanding he seemed to forget to act. However, in the lead-up to that pivotal duet at the conclusion of Act I Guerrero showed he was capable of much finesse when necessary for Pinkerton.

In making her role debut at Covent Garden Asmik Grigorian showed she is a formidable Cio-Cio-San with everything going for her, histrionically and vocally. Her character’s arc usually begins with childlike innocence (which we never saw from Grigorian) which through infatuation and delusion, leads to the realisation that she cannot escape her fate. In getting married to Pinkerton she has renounced her religious faith and lost her family and at the opera’s tragic denouement Cio-Cio-San is the very epitome of a ‘real’ butterfly. We see Grigorian centre stage representing a beautiful, fragile creature with her delicate wings seemingly broken by an uncaring man. Despite absolutely none of the character’s fragility in Act I, Gregorian reached great emotional heights at the end of the opera.

There was a beguiling rendition of the ‘Humming Chorus’ from the excellent chorus and orchestra as the perfect meditative interlude between the last two acts. As heard through the Everyman Cinema’s impeccable sound system conductor Kevin John Edusei – undeservedly insulted by David Mellor in a recent review – had absolute respect for the theatricality of Madama Butterfly; there was restraint when the singers needed his support – yet all the full-blooded passion and angst when demanded by Puccini – with Edusei creating throughout an intense atmosphere full of tension and drama.

In conclusion, there were many good things about this Butterfly, and everything was virtually as good as it could be without me – once again actually – finding myself as emotionally invested in Cio-Cio-San’s tragic descent as I needed to be.

Jim Pritchard

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

Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton – Joshua Guerrero
Goro – Ya-Chung Huang
Suzuki – Hongni Wu
Sharpless – Lauri Vasar
Cio-Cio-San – Asmik Grigorian
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

1 thought on “The superb Asmik Grigorian is simply Mimì in a kimono in Covent Garden’s <i>Madama Butterfly</i>”

  1. Absolutely a stunning performance by all, just superb, what a treat and privilege to witness such skill, talent, passion, creativity and artistry from not only the onstage performers, but the teams behind the scenes too, what an insight, more of those please. And the conductor and orchestra – mind-blowing! Love watching the journey to get to the end result. Long live the theatre world! Sooo important for our mental health! Thank you, thank you, thank you xx


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