Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly
Reviewer's rating

On a trip to London, Giacomo Puccini saw a play by David Belasco called Madame Butterfly, taken from a short story by Luther Lawn. Puccini approached him after the performance weeping inconsolably, demanding the operatic rights to his play.

The heroine was Cio-cio-san (Butterfly), the 15-year-old geisha who falls in love with and marries Lieutenant Pinkerton, a young American naval officer, who renounces everything, her family, her culture, her religion, even her life, for him. Pinkerton never takes the marriage seriously, dreaming of a real American wife even before his wedding. Butterfly waits three years for Pinkerton’s return, scouring the sea with her telescope, hoping his ship will come in. Unknown to all except Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid, Butterfly had a son, born after Pinkerton left. Pinkerton returns, bringing his American wife Kate with him. Butterfly waits all night for him in vain. Pinkerton lacks the courage to face her. Learning he has a son; Kate comes to take the boy away for a good life in America. Butterfly feels duty bound to give Pinkerton his son. Butterfly’s father was disgraced and sent a sword by the emperor to commit seppuku (kill himself). Butterfly uses the same sword and also kills herself.

There is a movement for operas such as Butterfly and Turandot, to be sung by ethnic oriental singers. There were demonstrations for Turandot last year, but thankfully this is not evident this year.

To soften the accusations of alleged racism, the 2003 Leiser/Caurier staging was altered by a Japanese team. Non-authentic or offensive elements were removed. The large, open-space set with moving screens works well. A bonus is that those sitting at the sides do not miss anything as the action is mainly central stage.

Unlike La Boheme, Butterfly does not usually bring a tear to the eye at the end. This time, it does, due to the tremendous performance of 43-year-old Latvian soprano Asmik Grigorian. Having sung Lady Macbeth not long ago, which is a very big sing, she pares her voice down to a fine thread to become 15-year-old Butterfly. Even her body language tells a story. Her Japanese-style restraint gradually erodes, until she cannot restrain herself any more.  She has melting pianissimi, builds to big phrases when she needs them. She uses her extensive vocal palette to show warmth, colour, depth of feeling and tragedy. She convincingly takes us on her fast-learning curve journey, as Butterfly develops from naïve girl to realistic 18-year-old single mother. The voice develops accordingly. The well known ‘un bel di’ is exquisite, displaying terrific breath control and depth of feeling. Her Italian is easily understood.

Mexican/American tenor Joshua Herrero as love-rat Pinkerton, is tall and good-looking. One understands why Butterfly falls for him. Despite never believing in the reality of the wedding, he is believable in his affection for Butterfly. He has a good voice with a lovely legato line. His version of Pinkerton seems genuinely horrified as to what he has done.

Estonian baritone Lauri Vasar is excellent as Sharpless. The Sharpless/Pinkerton duet works better than usual as both are quality singers and the voices well-balanced. Chinese mezzo Hongni Wu is fabulous as Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid. Her duets with Grigorian are lovely. We shall hear more of her.

Taiwanese tenor Ya-Chung Hung gives a well-sung honest portrayal of the marriage-broker Goro. Cameroonian/Ugandan/American mezzo Veena Akama-Makia (a current Jette Parker Young Artist) makes the best out of the thankless role of Kate. There is no weak link in this cast. A new cast takes over on 6th April.

German conductor Kevin John Edusei gave the right dynamics to the orchestra, never drowning the singers.

This is a wonderful evening at the opera and should not be missed. It is live in cinemas on 26th March.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. London.


Music by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Libretto Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

Conducted by Kevin John Edusei

Directed by Moishe Leiser and Partice Caurier

First performance 17th February 1904 La Scala, Milan

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Cast includes Joshua Guerrero, Hongni Wu, Ya-Chung Huang, Asmik Grigorian, Lauri Vasar, Romanas Kudriašovas, Veena Akama-Makia

Running time 2 hours 45 minutes with one interval

15th March 2024

Performances until 16th April, returning in July.