The cornerstone of Opera North's autumn season is a new production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly by the ever-enterprising Tim Albery (who's also responsible for the new production of The Fortunes of King Croesus). But in the event, although the orchestra and singers gave of their all, it turned out to be more of an interesting experience than an exciting or moving one.
Albery's production makes only one mistake - the use of a framing device at the beginning and end which suddenly moves us from Butterfly's world to a seedy dressing room at the heart of Nagasaki's sex trade (or so one assumes). At the start, the sight of singers putting on make-up and costumes is a reasonable, if unnecessary, way of pointing out that Butterfly puts on a fašade to sell herself to Pinkerton (bringing out the lurid side of the story), but having a Japanese girl walk on in the final bars with a cup of Starbucks coffee in her hand and glance unemotionally at Cio-Cio-San's dead body totally undermined the death scene. Why suggest that Butterfly is some kind of unimportant hooker or piece of meat after humanising her so vividly?
In almost every other respect, this is an intelligent and unusually detailed production. Indeed, I don't think I've ever been so conscious of the intricacies of the libretto or its dramaturgical accents before. Since Puccini saw Belasco's play in English - a language which he didn't understand - and was moved by the images and gestures, this sort of highly developed, richly acted approach is absolutely at one with the work.
The marriage scene is particularly fine. When Butterfly shows Pinkerton her treasures, Albery really draws out the horrific clash of cultures between the two: the Captain thinks he's handling some puppets, for instance, but Butterfly explains that they are sacred artefacts containing the souls of her noble ancestors. Sharpless clearly worries about the match from the start, understanding that it means nothing to Pinkerton and everything to Butterfly, and when he returns in Act Two to read her the letter from Pinkerton, Sharpless knows that his worst fears have been realised. Other arresting aspects include the outstandingly acted scenes with Sorrow, Butterfly's son, which show an even greater bond between mother and son than is normally the case, and the dialogues between Butterfly and Suzuki, her servant.
Performing a mixture of the original and revised versions of the score is mostly very helpful. Pinkerton is a harsher figure in the earlier incarnation of the opera and here doesn't have his humanising aria, whereas his wife, Kate, is given more lines. She's the one who has to ask Butterfly to hand over her child, not for either of their sakes but for the boy's. It is perhaps the most emotionally engaging moment of the show. There were one or two duller moments - the 'Humming Chorus' and Butterfly's vigil stood out for lacking stage action in comparison to most other scenes - and while the transformation of Cio-Cio-San into a surrogate American in Act Two was convincing, she seemed to lose all semblance of an Oriental, detrimentally so in my opinion. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating interpretation of a much-performed classic, and Opera North is to be congratulated for coming up with something so enduring at a time when the company is so cruelly under-resourced by the government.
The music, however, was a slightly different story. Despite positive reports in early reviews in the national press, I was disappointed in Wyn Davies' conducting. The orchestra worked hard but too often drowned out the singers, and there was a lack of contrast in a score which has a greater dynamic range than one would think from this performance. I was also surprised by the inattention to the cleanliness of line which Puccini often employs, not least in the contrapuntal opening pages. There was more contrast and fire in the later stages of the drama, but I was sorry that the singers struggled to be heard so often; The Lowry's dead acoustic was probably partly to blame.
For Anne Sophie Duprels to take on the title role at this stage of her career - especially for a lengthy run on tour - is both brave and foolhardy. Most of it is within her grasp and much of the evening was a riveting feast of thrilling tone, but at the bottom she is seriously underpowered and 'Un bel dý' suffered from tense delivery. Her acting, however, is brilliant. Her youth and freshness lend the part a welcome vulnerability and splendid credibility, while the way in which she throws herself into everything she does is riveting. I can only see her growing into the character more and more over time, especially vocally.
As Pinkerton, Rafael Rojas had some moments of powerful singing but on the whole seemed overstretched, especially in the love duet. For me he was too stupid a Captain, which was probably a result of this production's slant on the story, but was it credible that such an ungainly figure could lead the Marines, let alone capture Butterfly's heart?
Of the smaller roles, Ann Taylor's vocally well-projected, sympathetic Suzuki and Amanda Echalaz's luxurious-voiced Kate Pinkerton both threatened to steal the show. The others were all underpowered and a little blank in the midst of so psychologically vivid a portrayal of Cio-Cio-San, though Peter Savidge (Sharpless) and Alasdair Elliot (Goro) blended in well with the drama.
I've heard musically stronger performances of Madama Butterfly, but for a dramatic experience Opera North's production registers highly.