Review: Madama Butterfly

First published in the Guardian on 9 May, 2014

Sir David McVicar’s 14-year-old take on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has become a Scottish Opera stalwart, the kind of bullet-proof production that any company would be glad to have in its stockpile. It’s a handsome period piece (designs by Yannis Thavoris), unsentimental enough to be stylish, perceptive enough to be mildly provocative, safe enough to be a classic. The set is elegant and timeless, all gently askew angles and muted beiges and greys that would never tire the gaze. Touches of symbolism keep the mind ticking over: the butterfly silhouette as Cio-Cio San unwraps on her wedding night, the looming cherry branch laced with pretty flowers but also hinting at a lightening bolt. The final tableau (I won’t give it away) looks impressive and provides a neat jab at the illusionary American dream – altogether it works as allegory, for those inclined to prod, but also as straight, heartfelt entertainment.

A strong cast is led by a magnetic Cio-Cio San. South Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee inhabits the role with absolute conviction and ideal nuance: she is wide-eyed and girlish-voiced in Act One, ardent and womanly in Act Two, heartbreakingly dignified in Act Three. Hanna Hipp as Suzuki is likewise excellent, with a knowing, competent demeanour and a glowing mezzo timbre.

Alongside two such compelling women, Jose Ferrero’s Pinkerton makes a hulking, glaikit presence. His voice is sweet enough but lacks subtlety, while his character musters bewilderment at best – no lust, deceit, nonchalance, self-loathing or anything else that might make him interesting. Christopher Purves contributes an august Sharpless; the chorus sing warmly and move gracefully. The orchestra sounds hearty and supple in the Festival Theatre’s gaping pit – conductor Marco Guidarini occasionally lets them swamp the voices, but their surging, irresistible climaxes are worth it.

Until 17 May, then touring