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Madama Butterfly review, Royal Opera House: A blisteringly poignant revival of Puccini’s tragic drama

Tweaks to characters’ posture allow us to focus entirely on the drama, and not their ethnicity

Michael Church
Wednesday 15 June 2022 12:33 BST
Kseniia Nikolaieva (Suzuki), Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Sio-San) and Freddie De Tommaso (Lieutenant BF Pinkerton) in ‘Madama Butterfly’
Kseniia Nikolaieva (Suzuki), Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Sio-San) and Freddie De Tommaso (Lieutenant BF Pinkerton) in ‘Madama Butterfly’ (Yasuko Kageyama)

Nobody could accuse Covent Garden of backwardness in virtue-signalling. They recently announced plans for trigger warnings when murder, rape and sexual exploitation were on the agenda: difficult because such things are standard fare in grand opera. These days it’s enough for an opera to be branded “a work of its time” for the axe to be brought out, regardless of the fact that that phrase is applicable to every work, from every period in history.

The Royal Opera’s 20-year-old Leiser-Caurier production of Madama Butterfly had been scheduled for the chop, due to its alleged peddling of sexual exploitation, racial stereotyping and suicide. But it has now been reprieved on the condition that its revival director, Daniel Dooner, finds a slant which doesn’t offend those who regard the opera as an expression of racist stereotyping.

One could argue that this opera is actually an indictment of racism: Puccini’s passionate music makes no apology for Pinkerton’s breezy casualness over the results of his selfish fling. But in the eyes of a pressure group like Beats – British East and South East Asians in Theatre and on Screen – some expressions of racism are too deeply embedded to be resolved any time soon; for example, ethnically insensitive casting may be on the wane, but not fast enough.

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