Nearly 40 years after it was premiered at Welsh National Opera, Joachim Herz’s venerable 1978 production of Madam Butterfly still packs a hefty anti-imperialist punch. Puccini subtitled his opera “a Japanese Tragedy”, and honed the score to maximum tear-jerker effect. But it is far from being merely an unhappy romantic tale of American sailor boy jilts geisha girl.
Within the sepia tints of designer Reinhart Zimmerman’s shōji-screened interior, subtly lit by John Waterhouse, the terrible reality for Cio-Cio-San of sex tourism and cultural oppression is plain to see – and hear, as conductor Lawrence Foster pits orientalist inflection against The Star-Spangled Banner in knowing, ironic juxtaposition.
The Yankee superiority of Jonathan Burton’s lyrically-sung Pinkerton appalls, but his casual cruelty breaks the heart; for Cio-Cio-San – sung with restrained poise yet full-bodied passion by Karah Son – is seduced into a delusion of shared love despite being sold into disposable marriage.
David Kempster’s consul, Sharpless, proves a far more humane go-between than the suitably revolting broker, Goro (Simon Crosby Buttle). Yet neither he nor the devoted maid, Suzuki – an increasingly furious Rebecca Afonwy-Jones – can stop the inevitable; “Mrs Pinkerton’s” obsession with Americana only heightens the torment.
If the final, dreadful scene could be more solidly climactic, its power is nonetheless intense: Cio-Cio-San’s suicide – by her father’s already bloodied ritual knife, in front of the son whom Pinkerton returns to buy – is almost unbearable. And yet the story remains echoed in reality today in many forms. That the superb WNO chorus and orchestra have it musically in their bones is stirringly evident.