(Written March 2015)
On the opening night of the Royal Opera's Madama Butterfly, I entered the amphitheatre to find the occupants to my immediate right already in place - a dear elderly couple, aged ninety, dressed very smartly, hands folded atop their canes. After squeezing past, the gentleman immediately said; "Good evening. Have you seen the opera before?"
It soon transpired that he was quite the Puccini enthusiast, a lifelong devotee to the art of opera. It was with bright enthusiasm that he regaled recollected stories from decades ago, of starry sopranos and majestic nights.
"Puccini is, to the utmost, incomparable," he mused, with great sincerity. "When it is sung just right, everything just flows - a beautiful string of silver with no beginning and no end. From the first note of the love duet - just that one note alone! - I fall, completely."
"It seems to take so little for Puccini to create magic," I agreed, having recently been changed by an affecting Il Trittico.
"Magic!" he cried. "Magic! Now there's the word."
His fervency seemed to set the tone for the evening. I had initially come with relatively low expectations. Madama Butterfly was the spectacle for the first opera I ever attended - at the age of seven in the local Caird Hall, with a company hailing from a rather obscure part of Eastern Europe. Being altogether too young, I was ecstatic when Cio-Cio san finally copped it. Since that first encounter, Butterfly has failed to become more endearing; I often find it a capricious creation. The plot is simple, and Puccini's orchestration at his luscious best - a real lesson in tranquility and inner strength, with a dash of humour thrown in at surprising points. Yet, the characters frustrate; Pinkerton's insincerity is all too evident from the outset, that it becomes almost impossible to identify with Butterfly's love - at points, you simply desire to shake her hard, when she descends into histrionics over such an unworthy idol. Played with the slightest wrong nuance, the entire heart of the tale - a heart crafted of resilience, belief and hope - is inextricably lost.
There is no such fear with the Royal Opera's cast. Opolais' Butterfly is, possibly, the finest performance at the Royal Opera House this season. A tall woman with a powerful voice, Opolais showed remarkable control to thin her tone, particularly in Act I, to convey the winsome child. The task of portraying a fifteen year old girl, from a culture of great reserve and tradition, has always been a difficult one. Opolais showed her vocal power last season as Manon Lescaut; this time, she gave a sustained smooth tone, as shimmering and as breakable as gossamer, that still carried great resonance along with its purity. Upon her first appearance onstage, and introducing herself to Sharpless, Opolais' Butterfly is unapologetic and guilelessly frank. She becomes an eccentric child, one who seems, with her spontaneity and brightly unquenchable spark, slightly removed from the world around her - a dreamer ascending to the 'house made of air' on the hilltop. Rather than a mere slip of a child, giddy for marriage and security, under Opolais' guidance she takes on new meaning. While some may think this approach lacks the power, it ought to be remembered that this isn't some great Italianate tale of woe and misfortune. Butterfly's charm lies not in her passion, but in her femininity. Puccini endows her with dozens of lilting passages, stark in their simplicity - merely one reedy voice soaring out alone. When she turns to Jagde's Pinkerton at the beginning of 'Vogliateme bene', and entreats him to 'love her a little' it was so saturated with need and adoration that it takes the breath away.
The final two acts showcased a Butterfly unlike any other I have seen before. I state the triumvirate again - resilience, belief and hope - that is the making of the finest Butterflies. It is too lofty an aim to treat it as a great paragon of love or devotion; he is a fool and she is blind (and only fifteen). But Puccini wins when this unsavoury setup ceases to matter. He triumphs in the strength of her gaze, tempered by resolution not shrill adoration; he lives on the wings of Opolais' indignation, not doubt, when she utters in that terrible way; 'Ah! m'ha scordata? / Ah! Has he forgotten me?'. Opolais reduces us to tears precisely because her Butterfly walks on the side of Triumph; buffered by eccentricity, led by perceived kindness, her supposed misfortune and abandonment does not burden her. And, for that reason, Puccini's orchestration thrives - it is freed from the forerunner of tragedy and the apotheosis of reason.
To all Butterflies who march dutifully to the drum of Melancholy; observe Opolais and understand that a girl who gave her heart to faith could not have lived thus!