OPERA: Madama Butterfly Opera Northern Ireland, Grand Opera House, Belfast

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The Independent Culture
Fathoming the appeal of a story as nasty as that of Madama Butterfly is no easy matter; so much of it seems designed to point up the less pleasant aspects of both native and invader. The only virtuous qualities likely to appeal to a late 20th-century audience are the discomfiture of Sharpless, the impotent sympathy of Suzuki and the wholly misplaced loyalty of Cio- Cio-San. Even with the added remorse of "Addio fiorito asil", Pinkerton remains one of the most comprehensively unlovable male leads in the repertoire. But then, replete with more hummable melodies than you can shake a stick at, there is Puccini's score, the prime reason for coming back to this shabby drama and doubtless what brought a large and enthusiastic audience to Belfast's Grand Opera House.

Significantly, it was the score that weighed most heavily in Opera Northern Ireland's new production. Musically, the evening was a triumph. The Ulster Orchestra, in what can be a problematic pit where ensemble and balance are concerned, sounded magnificent without ever threatening the clarity of the voices on stage. Wind and brass were well tuned and voiced, and the strings played with superb bite and richness. Better still was Stephen Barlow's strongly directional reading in which nearly every aspect of the score had been carefully thought through. With the exception of some of the comings and goings in the first act, all parts of the opera had a strong sense of purpose and the co-ordination between conductor and stage was thrillingly secure.

The problems with pitch that plagued a pre-Christmas production of La Traviata seem to be a thing of the past. The odd moments when Nancy Yuen (Cio-Cio-San) hovered slightly below the orchestra, were more compensated for by her firm, consistent tone and impressive range of colour.

Vocally commanding, Mark Beudert's boozy, proprietorial Pinkerton provided an entirely credible image of the buccaneering Lieutenant and, though apparently indisposed, Jonathan Veira's warm-toned Sharpless, both testy and sympathetic, was one of the most rounded performances of the evening.

With such an evidently strong cast on hand, it was a pity that the production and setting did not confront the drama more strongly. Allen Charles Klein's set was beautiful both in composition and detail but, perhaps because of these qualities, encouraged the performers towards a static, two-dimensional approach to movement. Herbert Bliss's production was often a poor reflection of the dynamism of the musical reading for all the charm of the pictorial scenes. Major confrontations, notably between the Bonze, resonantly sung by William Peel, and Pinkerton, were underpowered and too often the gestures, especially so in the case of Cio-Cio-San, were stagy and banal. Nor was there much effort to characterise the chorus beyond the demands of local colour. If Cio-Cio-San's predicament is to acquire the depth it needs in the second act, surely the denunciation of her friends and relatives needs to be far more strongly drawn.

But if the production rarely takes the lid off the drama, its sensual aspects will continue to delight and, above all, the sterling musical qualities of this Butterfly will make it a landmark for the company.

Further perfs tonight, Thurs and Sat (01232 241919)