Of Opera North's mainstage performances this season, just over a third, in five cities, are of Puccini's most sharply focused study in callousness and cruelty pitted against commitment and the pathos of misplaced faith.
It is clearly intended to draw in the crowds, and, judging by the near-full house at this midweek performance, it is succeeding.
Make no mistake – it deserves to. This is the first revival of Tim Albery's 2007 production, but there is nothing routine or perfunctory about it. For a start they have managed to bring back no less than three of the four lead singers from the first run. Not surprisingly, they inhabit their roles with an assurance and completeness which is refreshing but all too rare. Peter Savidge was excellent as Sharpless, the American consul who tries in vain both to restrain Pinkerton and to get Butterfly to face harsh reality. The mixture of perception and diffidence was perfectly expressed. Equally successful was Ann Taylor in conveying the sad, even reproachful affection with which Suzuki watches her mistress deceive herself. Her sad looks were as eloquent as her singing.
As for Anne Sophie Duprels, returning to the title role, it would be hard to find, or even imagine, a more thoroughly committed rendering of it. Particularly striking was the contrast she made between the two acts. In the first, she was the nervous 15-year old, often shrinking from Pinkerton's eager touches. In Act II, she had not only adopted American clothes and hairstyle. She seemed to have grown physically and in self-confidence, even though coping with a desertion she cannot admit is permanent.
The one newcomer among the leads was the Pinkerton, Noah Stewart. This American tenor is certainly the real thing. He has an Italianate sound and sings with fluency and ease and no sense of strain.
All the singers are thoroughly integrated into Tim Albery's thoughtful, intelligent and entirely unsentimental production. There is no false oriental glamour. Costumes and sets are sober and subdued. But the clash of cultures is clear. Albery is not, I think, a director who sets out to shock. But his productions are almost always powerful, considered and challenging. He is surely one of the best opera directors around just now.