Arts: Not a dry eye in the house?

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For his new `Butterfly', David Freeman has flooded the Albert Hall but failed to tap the wellsprings of emotion. Edward Seckerson could have wept at the waste.

Water, water, everywhere... The advance publicity promised it, and Raymond Gubbay duly delivered it - all 15,000 gallons of it - to the Royal Albert Hall arena. There hasn't been this much fuss about flooding in the capital since before the advent of the Thames barrier. But there it was, pretty as a picture postcard, a package holiday brochure, the way the West will always see it, the way Lieutenant BF Pinkerton saw it - one small corner of the "floating island" that is for ever Uncle Sam. Director David Freeman and his designer David Roger have plucked their Madam Butterfly straight from the Hollywood back-lot. It has the look, the feel, the rosy glow of a studio set from the days when Technicolor was still a novelty. You half expect the spirit of Esther Williams to surface from amidst the ornamental rocks and walkways and smile benevolently upon the whole enterprise.

But that, presumably, was the point: to isolate, to maroon Butterfly somewhere between her own culture and the West's perception of it. So the detail is lovingly precise, the kimonos enchanting, the blossom fresh every day. But we're closer to Gilbert & Sullivan's Titipu than to real- life Nagasaki. So this is a sham, an illusion, a fantasy - like Pinkerton's love for Butterfly. So David Freeman has something devastating up his sleeve for Act 2? Or not.

Returning after the interval, a time-lapse of three long years during which time Butterfly's hopes and finances have begun to dry up, we discover that - surprise, surprise - the water has, too. The water garden has become a Zen Buddhist stone garden, its austerity - or so the programme note insists - a stern reminder of the religion which Butterfly abandoned but which will now reclaim her. A stern reminder? But nothing else has changed. Butterfly's little house is still pretty as a picture, still festooned in fresh blossom, still bathed in that rosy glow (courtesy of lighting designer Andrew Bridge).

Nor has the attitude of the production changed. A change of tone, a sharper sense of reality - less artificial, less prissily "operatic" in its conceits - could suddenly have turned the evening on its head and delivered the body blow that some of us were convinced was only a scene-change away. Was this really the work of the same David Freeman whose innovative Opera Factory took opera out of the closet and showed it (and the operatic establishment) real life? Or did some clause in his contract preclude telling it like it really is?

All right, to be fair, it's a perfectly serviceable, if ultimately rather bland and somewhat "distanced" realisation of the opera. It understands its space and moves efficiently within it, wisely radiating as little as possible from the central focus of Butterfly's "floating world". When it does so - as in the pointless circling of the arena that so fatally disturbs the still centre of the love duet - it flounders. But the set- pieces function well enough. Butterfly's entrance duly works its picturesque charm, though some confusion might arise from the fact that her relations arrive at roughly the same time as the first batch of latecomers. There are a lot of them, of course (relations, that is), and Freeman has them dutifully assemble for the wedding photo - a nice touch, that, right down to the ripple of disquiet over the powder-flash. Would that there had been more where that kind of detail came from. All credit to Freeman, though, for getting the child, Sorrow, so right. The little sailor suit was a chilling touch, the golden hair (for this was indeed a miniature Pinkerton) hidden from view until Butterfly removes his hat proudly to display it. In the final scene, Sorrow is draped in the American flag to shield his eyes from his mother's honourable discharge. The final ignominy.

Now, if the cast had all sounded as good as they looked, the evening might yet have caught our emotions off guard. Craig Downes was a frankly second-rate Pinkerton, easier in manner than voice, and quite without that ability to open up and sustain confidently, suavely, at the top. Whatever else Pinkerton does or doesn't have, a ringing top register is a prerequisite. Keith Latham's Sharpless was good, though, an ample, bluff, suitably weathered vocal colour (better with the words than most), and Marcia Bellamy, while not exactly a scene-stealing Suzuki, found the humanity wherever she could. So did Liping Zhang's touching Butterfly. This promising young Chinese soprano is central casting's answer to the role, a pretty and wholly believable figurine with plenty of voice (though "sound enhancement" - otherwise known as radio-miking - makes it hard to tell just how much) and the heart to make it count. Her problems (and I'm presuming that the odd lapses in intonation - desperate on her first entrance - were down to hearing impairment in this difficult, far-flung space) have more to do with technique than spirit. A good performance could yet become an excellent one if her instinct could be matched with her ability to fine-tune and support phrasing beyond the point where rapture and pathos really begin. Even so, the passion, the resolve of her top notes, the inwardness and concentration of stage presence were not to be taken lightly. Alas, Amanda Holden's brand-new English translation was not money well-spent where she was concerned.

The sound of Gubbay's "opera for the people" is improving all the time, though the people should be advised that there is no substitute for the unvarnished, unamplified truth - particularly where operatic voices are concerned. Sound designer Bobby Aitken did a good job here on the BBC Concert Orchestra under Peter Robinson, extending the reach, beefing up the opulence to Dolby Stereo levels without it sounding so. In fact, this was easily the best of Gubbay's operatic ventures to date, even if one did still leave with the distinct feeling that David Freeman had been neutered.

To Sunday 1 March, Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London SW7. Booking: 0171-589 8212