What a difference a conductor makes: Puccini’s less-wounded Butterfly

Two years ago, on this very site, I reviewed a matinée performance of Madama Butterfly at Covent Garden; the review was titled A Wounded Butterfly.  The beautiful production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier was then counterpointed by a massively distended account courtesy of conductor Dan Ettinger. Here, it was Kevin John Edusei, a fine conductor – and the realignment and new-found congruence between stage and pit made all the difference.

The evening was not without unplanned drama: a late start due to a technical issue (the television cameras were in, which may or may not have been the problem) and a sudden medical emergency in the stalls in the final act – I hope the person concerned is OK. But the real drama is of course Puccini’s, and it was good to be back in his iron grasp. Kevin John Edusei is a fine conductor who made his Covent Garden debut in 2022, also in Puccini (La Bohème). My own previous experiences of him have both been positive (a Beethoven Ninth [with Chinese!] at the 2017 Proms and a superbly paced Figaro at ENO in 2020). Edusei understands not just Puccini’s ebb and flow, but also the composer’s larger dramatic arcs. The orchestra at Covent Garden clearly loves him, something in evidence from the very start with that tricky opening for strings: here, perfectly judged (less so back in 2022, I seem to remember). Bustling and accurate, the atmosphere was superbly set. Edusei lets the music breathe, yet never dawdles, and with the players in his thrall, the results were magical.

Asmik Grigorian (Cio-Cio-San) and Hongni Wu (Suzuki)

The production of course is vital to success. I discussed Leiser and Caurier’s beautifully uncluttered approach in my previous review; experiencing it again courtesy of revival director Daisy Evans, with its entirely Japanese setting (and that photo of the harbour!) it was Christophe Forey’s lighting that made the biggest impact, ever sensitive, sometimes dramatic, that silhouette of Kate Pinkerton in the final act still heart-stopping. Repeated experience of this aspect only deepens appreciation: Forey’s realisation of Leiser and Caurier’s conception is pitch perfect. Symbols take on huge importance: the falling of the cherry blossoms, for example, while the on-stage space puts the emphasis on the characters themselves. The sheer care involved in true Japanese movement is impressive, too. Problematic though Madama Butterfly might be to contemporary audiences in its caricaturing of a society, this production offers the finest imaginable solution.

There was much to celebrate vocally, too. And it is always a pleasure to report a finding, too: the Chinese mezzo Hongni Wu as Suzuki. A former Jette Parker Artist (2018-2020), Wu is a real talent, her diction perfect, her voice focused yet warm.  She was the perfect foil for a singer who is surely one of the great Cio-Cio-Sans of our era, Asmik Grigorian. There is no doubting her star shines brightly internationally at the moment; and this performance revealed just why. Moving from innocent to heart-broken woman, fierce in her belief in Pinkerton and his return (how great the heartbreak for us all at the end), Grigorian will never sing beautifully just for the sake of a lovely sound. This was the most variegated Butterfly assumption I have ever heard. Every shade of Cio-Cio’s ordeal was there in movement and in voice, from an initial fragile vulnerability through unstinting belief in the power of love through unwavering devotion, to the final tragic dénouement. Every phrase was carefully considered, every interchange with other characters thought-through and delivered with sure dramatic awareness. Grigorian’s second act ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ was strangely the one moment that did not quite work, its climax a tad underwhelming. And yet, as if in compensation, she offered  the most delicious ‘Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio’ as she tells Suzuki to strew the room with flowers in anticipation of Pinkerton’s return. It was interesting, also, how some passages featuring Cio-Cio and Suzuki together sounded for all the world like an echo of the ‘Flower Duet’ from Delibes’ Lakmé (an opera itself recently heard at Cadogan Hall courtesy of Chelsea Opera Group, of course).

Joshua Guerrero (Pinkerton) and Asmik Grigorian (Cio-Cio-San)

Sadly, Joshua Guerrero as Pinkerton did not live up to his titular heroine. It was Guerrero who sang Pinkerton in September 2022 opposite, then against Lianna Haroutounian’s Butterfly (the Opera Today review cited above was of a June 2022 performance) I found him dramatically unconvincing in September 2022, and I find him so now, also. It was an uninvolving take on the role, and his voice while adequate, lacks the ringing confidence his character needs.

Tallinn-born baritone Lauri Vasar was a strong Sharpless, and there is perhaps an even greater acknowledgment due for Josef Jeongmeen Ahn’s Prince Yamadori (still a Jette Parker Artist, Ahn has a real future ahead). With the experienced Jeremy White imposing as the Buddhist Priest (and Cio-Cio’s uncle) the Bonze, Andrew O’Connor as a strong Yakusidé and Ya-Chung Huang as a firm and absolutely convincing Goro, this was a strong cast. Cameroonian Ugandan-American (!) mezzo Veena Akama-Makia took the role of Kate. Another Jette Parker Artist, she held the small but vital role well.

With such a fine supporting cast and a faultless Chorus of the Royal Opera (their ‘O Kami, O Kami’ absolutely beautiful, as was the Humming Chorus), and Grigorian’s absolutely unforgettable Butterfly, this was a night to remember, its positives far outweighing any glitches or accidents. Under the confident baton of Edusei, this was a sure-fire reminder of the power of Puccini’s heart-rending music.

Colin Clarke

Madama Butterfly

Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly): Asmik Grigorian; Pinkerton: Joshua Guerrero; Suzuki: Hongni Wu; Goro: Ya-Chung Huang; Sharpless: Lauri Vasar; Yakusidé: Andrew O’Connor; Yamadori: Josef Jeongmeen Ahn; Kate Pinkerton: Veena Akama-Makia; Imperial Commissioner: Romanas Kudriašovas; Dolore (Cio-Cio-San’s child): Grayson Kemmer-Brown; Directors: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier; Revival Director: Daisy Evans;  Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent  Garden (chorus director: William Spaulding), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Kevin John Edusei, conductor.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Tuesday 19 March 2024

All photos by Marc Brenner © 2024 ROH