On the stage, as we enter the theatre, a group of geisha and their apprentices are being helped to apply their trademark white make-up and don elaborate kimonos. And at the end of Madama Butterfly – the first of an ambitious clutch of six new productions that Opera North has lined up this season – a tarty young woman in leggings wanders in and stares impassively at the corpse of the humiliated teenager for whom suicide was the only option.
Is this bewildering framing device meant to suggest that the opera is all make-believe or flashback? That the tea-house girl, Butterfly, exists in an earlier period? Or even that she has calculatingly perpetrated her own act of betrayal on Pinkerton by pretending to be a 15-year-old innocent?
Whatever spin Tim Albery is putting on the unhappy encounters between Japan and its Yankee visitors, the rest of his starkly compelling interpretation is built on insight and care, and in complete accordance with the structural shifts in the score. The acting, as well as the superb musical unfolding of the narrative, leaves a strong impression. The French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels conveys brilliantly the complexity of Cio-Cio San, down to the tiniest, crucial details of characterisation. Her bright voice, warmly Italianate, is tinged with tragic restraint as she sings to her child.
Rafael Rojas's Pinkerton, puppyish and resolutely oblivious to his temporary wife's culture, combines suavity of sound with smoothness of character. Peter Savidge makes a sympathetic and keenly observed Sharpless, with Ann Taylor creating a Suzuki who conveys genuinely painful emotion. Alasdair Elliot's sharp-suited Goro and Jonathan May's Bonze are also well defined.
Hildegard Bechtler's set, a series of sliding screens around a ramp, is simplicity itself, and against this beautifully lit background of muted colours, the gradual splashes of scarlet – lantern, strewn petals, two tiny red-sailed ships, Cio-Cio San's crimson-spattered white dress – are effective.
The conductor Wyn Davies adopts sufficiently brisk tempos to preclude any wallowing in musical sentiment, and the orchestra responds with thrilling immediacy. The "Humming Chorus" is ravishing.
To 18 October, then touring (0870 125 1898; www.operanorth.co.uk)Reuse content