Dressed in muted sepia panels by Hildegard Bechtler, and lit by Peter Mumford to mirror the convulsive darkening of the score and libretto, Tim Albery's Madama Butterfly is neither a pretty study in exoticism nor an anti-imperialist tract. Though Albery draws a crude parallel between Cio-Cio-San's marriage and modern-day prostitution, framing the production with two scenes from a Nagasaki clip-joint where Western women compete for trade with a lone geisha, his central focus is domestic, claustrophobic and profoundly unromantic. And so is the music in the edition used by Opera North.
Parallel fourths and "Star-Spangled Banner" aside, Puccini's original version of Madama Butterfly is not a million miles from Janacek in its knotted, point-blank misery. First performed in this country in Leeds in 1991, it is rougher and more ambiguous in tone than the version we normally hear. Cio-Cio-San has had doubts about marrying Pinkerton ("Un uomo Americano! Un barbaro! Una vespa!"), her relationship with Suzuki is more intimate, Kate Pinkerton becomes a veritable monster of bourgeois propriety, while Lieutenant Pinkerton's arietta "Addio, fiorito asil", added later by Puccini to soften the officer's character, does not feature at all. "Un bel di'" is less an icon of Butterfly's vigil than one aspect of it, while the Humming Chorus is merely a scene-setter for the agonised orchestral interlude that follows it, during which we see Cio-Cio-San decide to take her own life.
Small and girlish of face, figure and voice, Anne Sophie Duprels is a deeply moving Cio-Cio-San: doll-like in her traditional wedding robes and proud but vulnerable in the Louise Brooks bob, floral dress and Mary-Jane shoes she adopts in Act II, which contrive to make her look a little older, a little heavier. Though her voice is light, her singing and acting have uncommon intensity, highlighting many of the 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San's least attractive qualities – her haughtiness, her coyness, her rage, her capacity for self-deception – yet also conveying the depth of her love, her humour, her intelligence and her despair. Duprels' diction is impeccable, her words most expressively coloured, her commitment unflagging, and if one is aware that she is having to use her whole body to sing Cio-Cio-San's last phrases, it only adds to her believability.
Though Duprels dominates the production even when silent, she is well supported by conductor Wyn Davies, the Orchestra of Opera North, and the rest of the cast. Rafael Rojas's heavy-set, middle-aged Pinkerton is a remarkably unselfish performance, grotesque in his mimicry of Cio-Cio-San's family, gauche and vile as he tosses her ancestors in the air like little toys, repellent as he lounges on the futon, allowing her to wash his feet, a rank coward on his return.
As counter-balance, Ann Taylor's quiet, angry, loving Suzuki is beautifully observed, her hostility to Pinkerton immediate, her affection for Cio-Cio-San slowly deepening. Peter Savidge is a sensitive, appropriately awkward Sharpless, Alasdair Elliot a marvellous Goro, Amanda Echalaz luxury casting in the thankless role of Kate. With startlingly frigid cries of "O, Cio-Cio-San!" from the chorus and one of the saddest accounts of the Humming Chorus I've heard, this is a powerful and thoroughly upsetting Butterfly.
In London and in Glyndebourne, Vladimir Jurowski has become so intimately associated with the London Philharmonic Orchestra that it was surprising that his inaugural performance as principal conductor should have happened only this week. What was not surprising was the advantage a conductor and orchestra who have spent most of the summer together enjoy when they return to the concert platform. Had you put an instrument in front of me and asked me to start playing on the minute flicker of Jurowski's baton at the start of the Parsifal Prelude, I would not have known where to come in. Yet the opening phrase shimmered into being, smooth, clean and grave, confirming that the LPO plays better for Jurowski than for anyone.
If Jurowski is a promising Wagnerian, he is already an established interpreter of Berg. The Three Pieces for Orchestra Opus 6 were remarkable for their lyricism, dynamism, expressive confidence, textural clarity and sensuality of timbre. Sadly these qualities were afforded little space in the original version of Das klagende Lied, which includes Mahler's woefully disorganised first movement, Waldmärchen. Lacklustre vocal soloists compounded the inherent unevenness in the writing, despite excellent performances from the orchestra, chorus and off-stage band. Jurowski has a penchant for interesting but problematic works. Let's hope he does not indulge it too often at the Southbank.
'Madama Butterfly', Grand Theatre, Leeds (0844 848 2700) to 8 November
Further reading Alexandra Wilson's 'The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism and Modernity' (Cambridge)Reuse content