opera Madame Butterfly Grand Theatre, Leeds

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The Independent Culture
An opera in which under-age sex leaves a 15-year-old girl a single parent? You wouldn't want sensitive opera-goers exposed to that sort of thing, would you? No wonder Opera North performs Madame Butterfly in Italian with no surtitles. Offer the punters no translation, and they just might miss the sordid details.

You could say that Butterfly's age is immaterial, what matters is her plight; and, anyway, the details are in the programme for all to see. Nevertheless, Dalia Ibelhauptaite's new production, which opened last Thursday, has recourse to generalised semaphore to communicate details which otherwise might be lost to all but Italian speakers. Then, too, Oleg Cheintsis's designs offer sundry mouldy orientalisms, lots of mincing barrow boys and chattering women in kimonos, even a bonsai to provide atmosphere: that the show doesn't degenerate into Japonaiserie is a credit to the performances that Ibelhauptaite secures.

Mark Nicolson seemed to be suffering from a cough, and his top notes emerged thin and strained, but his Pinkerton is an uncouth braggart, drinking whisky from the bottle, confident that a fistful of dollars opens every door. He and Peter Savidge's Sharpless are Ivy League lads out of their depth, and Savidge catches nicely the consul's emotional impotence. Suzuki, Butterfly's faithful servant, has a firmer grasp on reality, and in Liane Keegan's sturdy characterisation, she bustles and hustles effectively.

But more than most operas, Madame Butterfly stands or falls on the title role. Here the Chinese soprano Chen Sue gives a performance of stark power, so detailed that the eye might never look up to read surtitles, even if they were there. Chen Sue has a tendency to direct her glances towards the audience, or rather, towards the conductor, but that does allow us to follow all the more closely her journey towards abject despair. When Pinkerton returns to collect the child he earlier left Butterfly to bring up alone, she all but takes her knife to him, transfixing us with the look of horror that crosses her face as she realises how far from innocence she has come.

On this first night, the voice couldn't quite achieve the same expressive range, but beneath its innate sweetness ran a prominent vein of toughness: just like Butterfly herself. There were moments when Ibelhauptaite had her doing odd things - her suicide seemed to be no more than the merest prick with her dagger, but that led to a striking image as, crucified, Butterfly ascended to heaven, looking like a butterfly impaled in a specimen case.

Over-emphatic? Perhaps, but powerful rhetoric. Marco Zambelli's conducting was similarly forthright but, as the prolonged applause demonstrated, those are qualities which, allied to Chen Sue's more subtle gifts, make for strong, communicative theatre.

n Further perfs Fri, 23, 26 Oct (0113 245 9351); then on tour