Madama Butterfly is an opera that always elicits strong feelings. For every observer who condemns Pinkerton as a heartless exploiter, another will mention Butterfly's sadistic cruelty in committing suicide in the presence of her young child. Perhaps it's no surprise that a story centred upon cultural differences should elicit such polarised responses; this is ultimately a tragedy of conflicting expectations, each partner engaging in a contract based upon their stereotypes of a different civilisation. Whilst undoubtedly infatuated, Pinkerton has no plans to stick around in Japan in the long term: this is an extended holiday romance, and a marriage happily engaged in on the understanding that in Japan, geishas can marry by the month. His flaw is simply to fail to realise the potential consequences of his actions for Butterfly, should she be as in love as Sharpless warns. Butterfly in turn embarks upon her marriage in the belief that it will be an American-style contract, too naive and short-sighted to realise that an American sailor might not covet a Japanese entertainer as his life-long partner. This cultural myopia proves fatal.
Any successful production of Madama Butterfly needs to make these cultural differences (and the attendant power conflicts) central to our understanding of the story. The chief limitation of Moshe Lieser and Patrice Courier's attractive but deeply conventional production is its failure to address these issues. Revived at Covent Garden for the fourth time (originally a vehicle for Cristina Gallardo-Domas), it offers a highly picturesque and delicate backdrop to the story, without ever daring to foreground the social dimensions of the story. Butterfly's house is conjured up through a series of discrete (if noisy) Ikea-style boards, which reveal in turn a garden, Nagasaki Bay and Kate Pinkerton in the distance. Character is mainly signalled through costume, whether Pinkerton's bright-blue naval uniform or Butterfly's series of kimonos. At no point are the thorny cultural issues - Butterfly's economic need for a partner, the social stigma of abandonment, Pinkerton's orientalist attitudes towards geishas – made bold and the result is decorative rather than hard-hitting. Given Nagasaki's obvious resonances for this alliance, why not set it during the American Occupation?
As a result of this, the performance I attended was unusually dependent upon the singers for delievering sophisticated characterisation. This revival was due to be led by Patricia Racette, who has made a speciality of the role in recent times. Having pulled out due to illness, the role was shared by Liping Zhang and the (reportedly astounding) Kristin Oppolais through the run. Liping Zhang offered a very good Butterfly: quite apart from her physical aptness, her voice encompasses both the delicacy of her Act One entrance -her repertoire includes Lucia- and the necessary power for her climactic suicide, making it no surprise that her performance was recorded for 3D broadcast. Throughout she offered a complex delineation of Butterfly's journey from sweet, naive infatuated teenager to a heartbroken, volatile, perhaps spiteful adult. Is her suicide an act of honour or a subtle form of revenge? Zhang left this happily open-ended. Alongside her, Helene Schneidermann delievered a very affecting Suzuki, warm-toned and plangent yet without making this caring figure unnecessarily grandmotherly.
In the role of Sharpless, Antony Michaels-Moore performed similarly well; his voice these days lacks an easy cantabile but his acuity with text and sensitive acting made for a very rewarding portrayal. Vocally speaking, the only weak link was James Valenti. His debut in La Traviata last summer was one of the most disappointing I've seen and my hopes weren't high for this performance - an attitude initially rebuffed by his confident entrance. Alas, the early problems soon re-surfaces: his tone. warm with a mahagony shade down below, become increasingly thin and uncomfortable above the passagio, meaning that Puccini's high-lying phrases never bloom in the intended fashion. The Act One love duet fell flat as a consequence (both he and Zhang gave up on their climactic top note a beat before the orchestra's entrance) and throughout his performance was oddly uncharismatic. He looked the part and seems confident as an actor, yet vocally he never seemed on top of it, and one wonders whether this lyric Romantic repertoire is his natural forte. The audience booed him.
Together with Zhang, the best contribution of the evening came from the conductor. Andris Nelsons performed a very good La Boheme last year and maintained that form with a carefully nauanced yet passionate delievery of the score. He has a natural accompanist's ear for scale and happily let rip during the more passionate moments of the evening. Despite the flaws of the production, he set the seal on an involving and ultimately satisfying account of Madama Butterfly.
Earlier in the season, we were treated to a similarly tragic tale with a rather different set of moral conundrums. Nearly seventy years after its premiere, Peter Grimes’ status as the British national opera seems fairly secure: a product not only of its groundbreaking international success, but perhaps also its distinctive resonance for the British collective psyche. Premiered immediately after the Second World War, it could be seen as part of a broader pattern of cultural regeneration, and its theme of the individual’s struggle against an aggressive majority had unusual historical potence; at the same time, its lively, often comic depiction of rural British life has resonances which are by turns nostalgic and chilling. The Borough’s devotion to established codes of behaviour (as in Albert Herring) can elicit an audience’s yearning for an idyllic pastoral foretime; but it also yields moments of sheer horror when Peter chooses to commit suicide rather than face their united fury.
The conflicts in Peter Grimes are not so easily resolved, however. Many productions today are keen to stress Peter’s moral purity, presenting him as a Parsifal-like figure who is essentially innocent and misunderstood, tormented by an uneducated, baying mass. The recent staging by David Alden at English National Opera indulged in some of these trends, making the apprentice’s death a direct consequence of Peter’s fear of the crowd’s approach, and thus absolving him of blame. Yet as Ellen Orford’s comments make clear (“It’s started again”), the eventual death of John is a product of predictable negligence; Peter might lack malice but he also lacks circumspection. His gaze is entirely inward, and even his romance with Ellen appears to rest only upon a desire for social acceptance. From that point of view, is the Borough’s suspicion of Peter solely cruelty, or at least in part prudence? How should society integrate individuals who seem unwilling or unable to live by society’s conventions?
Willy Decker’s production goes some way to engaging with these questions. His basically expressionist staging is centred upon a steeply rake and employs a mise-en-scene familiar from The Crucible to evoke a world of social uniformity and ever-present threat. He avoids underplaying Peter’s unattractiveness , however, making him a more ambiguous figure who evokes sympathy and mistrust in equal measure; a British Wozzeck of sorts. Ellen’s final acquiescence is presented in unremittingly tragic terms as she covers her face to sing the final chorus, a gesture that conveys not only acceptance but also a piercing sense of shame at this destructive resolution.
The musical performances in this revival were generally excellent. As Peter, Ben Heppner offered a significant improvement upon his Tristan last season: his voice began to fail in the last act, yet the worn beauty of his timbre, his sincere acting and hulking presence made for a moving interpretation. Amanda Roocroft offered similarly sensitive singing and acting; her basic voice is not especially attractive and above the passagio can become unpleasantly shrill, but her interpretation was deeply felt and was met with a roaring ovation. In the smaller parts, Jonathan Summers as Balstrode and Jane Henschel as Mrs Sedley were especially memorable but all were well cast.
The Royal Opera House Chorus were on fire for this performance – few operas offer such rich opportunities and they offered wonderfully vibrant, full-toned singing delivered with gusto. Under Sir Andrew Davis, the orchestral playing was of a similarly high standard and the Sea Interludes were memorable for their careful rubato and fine display of colour. All in all, this was a thought-provoking evening at the Royal Opera House.