Puccini: Madama Butterfly

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, 27 June 2011 3 stars

Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San (Photo ©ROH/Mike Hoban)Arriving with time to spare before curtain-up of ROH's latest revival of Moshe Leiser's and Patrice Caurier's Madama Butterfly, I busied myself with the programme book. Amid glossy ads and countless images of women in varying degrees of Japanese attire and undress (plus one of Puccini at his dapper Italian best) there appears Manet's 1868 painting of Emile Zola. The eminent author, surrounded by references to all things japonais, could hardly look more French, from ample moustache to striped trouser. It's a subtle illustration of nineteenth-century French art's relationship to its favourite Other: East meets West in a gilded frame. But what about the opera's hardline subtitle, 'Japanese tragedy in three acts'? No subtlety there. A reminder, in fact, of one of the big questions that must be answered by modern directors: how Japanese is this tragedy?

The Leiser/Caurier response, first seen almost a decade ago (this is its fourth revival), involves a hefty dose of Orientalism lite. To an extent it builds on the opera's century of production history: while Agostino Cavalca's costumes and wigs seem to be making the same old bid for Japanese authenticity (accessories, the production credits assure us, were sourced from a bridal costume hire firm in Nagasaki), the heavy eyeliner treatment of a less politically correct era has been dropped. The basic elements of Christian Fenouillat's set designs – screens for walls, mostly bare interior, a low table, the odd floor cushion – are also familiar. Except that here the screens wind up and down as though setting up a Powerpoint presentation, and reveal a series of changing vistas, some more successful than others.

The opening antique photo of Nagasaki Bay provided the most thought-provoking moment; but the revelation of florist's arrangements for Suzuki's and Cio-Cio-San's Act II petal-gathering – with screens rising and falling furiously (and noisily) to let the two women in and out – was pointlessly kitsch and only added to the (presumably unintentional) visual comedy. Even Christophe Forey's lighting designs, attractive enough in the big love duet and for Butterfly's vigil (who, after all, can resist a starlit backdrop?), nonetheless failed to provide either imaginative visual spectacle or intelligently ironic comment.

In places the musical performance suffered from a similar malaise. Small but all-too-frequent divergences between stage and pit were symptomatic of a more general lack of commitment from the ROH Orchestra under Andris Nelsons. Sheer richness of tone couldn't disguise ragged phrasing and imprecise woodwind tuning. Adding to the orchestra's problems was the miscasting of James Valenti in the great mouth-and-trousers role of Pinkerton: he certainly wore his suit with the all-American panache of an ex-high-school jock, but his voice was puny by comparison. Even with the orchestra ramped down – providing a cold shower for some of Puccini's most passionate outpourings – Valenti's light and otherwise enjoyable tenor struggled to be heard.

The other singers generally fared better. Helene Schneiderman was an excellent Suzuki, bringing emotional depth and beauty to the voice of good sense; as Sharpless, Anthony Michaels-Moore sounded tired at times but managed skilfully to negotiate the role's demand to be both (Imperially) mighty and sympathetic. Robin Leggate's Goro, after a shaky entrance, developed great stage presence; Zhengzhong Zhou was reliable as Yamadori and Jeremy White made a suitably solid Bonze; Rachael Lloyd's Covent Garden debut as Kate Pinkerton made the minuteness of the role regrettable.

In the absence of Patricia Racette (who withdrew from the production owing to illness) and in her own Covent Garden debut, Kristine Opolais produced mixed results as the eponymous heroine. She demonstrated huge stamina and extraordinary control over the extremes of dynamics and tone; but some of those extremes were nonetheless pushed too far – perhaps the product of the same vein of directorial ambivalence towards the positioning of Japan. It was at best inconsistent with other characters for Opolais to attempt at times that 'little Japanese girl' voice (unpleasantly nasal and, as it happened here, often sharp) of another era's tastes – and a shame, given how well she sang elsewhere. Her acting, too, slipped at times into the histrionic. It was typical of this production that the ending, with its endlessly problematic cliché of 'Japanese' ritual suicide, was brutally overacted (Cio-Cio-San hurling her arms out in – you guessed it – butterfly wing movements as she died) without providing sufficient visual interest or disrupting the plot's now-unpalatable messages.

By Flora Willson

Photos © ROH/Mike Hoban