Madama Butterfly

Scottish Opera

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 22 June 2007 4 stars

Madama Butterfly

Scottish Opera's Madama Butterfly embraces the creativity of Puccini's writing and here produced a fine performance, with an accomplished cast and orchestra to match.

Madama Butterfly is one of Puccini's best-loved operas. Taking its plot from David Belasco's drama, the piece is focused on the story of a Geisha, Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly), who tragically kills herself after her husband (Lieutenant B F Pinkerton) remarries in America and returns to Japan with his new wife to reclaim his son.

Reviving David McVicar's production of Madama Butterfly (the first performance of which was in 2000) was a golden opportunity for Scottish Opera to portray the tragic nature of Puccini's opera - a repertoire I feel they do best.

In this production, Butterfly's residence is the entire focus for the setting of the opera. Its minimal scenery (with sliding partitions) may seem too plain at times, but it does secure the feeling of a traditional Japanese locale, as well as candidly reflecting the simplicity of Butterfly's devotion to Pinkerton: her relentless loyalty to him was like her room - plain and simple.

The cast - faced with a cocktail of distinct characters - undertook their roles with precision. As one might expect, Pinkerton's scheming was blatantly portrayed by John Hudson, whose voice carried the menace this part required. His fearlessness and clear enthusiasm were perfect for the role. Not to be outdone, the American consul Sharpless (Garry Magee) and Suzuki (Jennifer Johnston) were clearly in their element as they tackled their tricky roles. Johnston especially gave the performance an extra sparkle with her resonant voice as she convincingly balanced the dual role of maid and eventual mediator. Occasionally the singers were overpowered by the orchestra, but this did not detract from their vocal ability and sheer raw talent. An exceptional love duet came from Hudson and Rebecca Nash (Butterfly) at the end of the first act, their vocal timbres fully complimenting each other.

Ultimately it was Nash who stole the show. Creating a teenage character of innocence, loyalty and (eventual) tragedy, Nash's secure performance was capped by her brilliant rendition of the famous aria 'One Fine Day' in the second act. Flaunting her relentless stamina she created a still, sustained and poised performance.

Under the direction of Francesco Corti, the excellent cast had an orchestra to match. Superb playing came from oboist Joseph Houghton, whose haunting sound introduced the second half. But the most stunning and magical moment came from the offstage chorus and musicians. As Butterfly, Sorrow (Butterfly's son) and Suzuki waited all night for Pinkerton to visit their house, I couldn't help but close my eyes as the humming chorus and viola solo (Susan Harris) took over from the stillness of the night to create deep atmosphere and poignancy.

The glut of recent media attention focused on the daily lives of Japanese Geisha has made us more appreciative than ever of their ancient etiquette and customs. Although this was an opera performance and not a historical account of Geisha life, the stage presence and movement of the singers (especially walking and sitting down) could have been more culturally aware of distinct Japanese mannerisms.

Final credit goes to Catriona Barr, who played the small but important role of Pinkerton's wife, Kate, with style and charisma.

By Mary Robb