Puccini,‘Madama Butterfly’

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

This was a triumphant end to a transitional, divisive and occasionally fractious first season under the new regime of Chief Executive Emma Stenning. Much of the vituperation and ridicule directed at the most outlandish of her ideas has been well-deserved. It has also had the unfortunate and unintended consequence of diverting attention away from an important truth of paramount importance – that the CBSO’s playing is as fine as it’s ever been, equalling their ‘90s heydays under Rattle. The ebullient newly anointed Music Director Kazuki Yamada has brought back joy and enthusiasm sorely missed during Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s short Covid-blighted reign. Sceptics may wince at his cult-of-personality presence and the synchronized hand-waving but only serial miserabilists can resist the infectious sense of fun. At the end of the performance a packed audience – the only classical concert of the season in which the Grand Tier was opened – was collectively on its feet, cheering and applauding vociferously. It was like old times.

This was a semi-staged performance but with Puccini’s large orchestra – with extra banks of percussion – on the platform, director Thomas Henderson and designer Laura Stanfield had little room to manoeuvre but used the available space effectively. A few folding screens and props and traditional costumes for Cio-Cio San (Maki Mori) and Suzuki (Hiroka Yamashita) gave our imaginations something to work on. It was a brilliant coupe-de-théátre for Cio-Cio San to make her first entrance behind a screen in silhouette at the rear of the platform and, with the inexorability of fate, to exit to her death the same way. The singing of the principals was uniformly fine and that of the comprimarios never less than serviceable. Maki Mori was an endearing Butterfly, convincingly shy and star-struck for her impending wedding, bereft in abandonment, dignified in death. Her big set pieces – including a passionately exultant “Un bel dì, vedremo”, well applauded – she knew by heart but distractingly referred to a strategically placed score when in conversation with Christopher Purves’ firmly-sung and sympathetic Sharpless. Mori and Yamashita’s mistress-and-confidant relationship was convincing as in their momentarily girlish joy when sighting Pinkerton’s returning ship.

The tenor Pene Pati, an outstanding Berlioz’ Faust here in April, was in splendid Italianate voice, trumpet-like top notes ringing out. Puccini makes him a cad but he must sing like an angel. Cultural critics have taken the opera to task for its patronizing “orientalism” but they overlook its excoriating depiction of American imperialism: “Everywhere in the world the roving Yankee takes his pleasure and his profit, indifferent to all risks”, Pinkerton smugly tells Sharpless. That sentiment is underlined musically by Puccini’s distorted reference to the patriotic ‘Star-Spangled Banner’. Not until Jimi Hendrix’s deconstruction of the tune at the 1969 Woodstock Festival – at the height of the Vietnam war – has the Yankee anthem been treated with such barbed irony. One character was missing on stage, Butterfly’s little boy Trouble. It took me a few seconds to realize that he was represented by some clothes on a coat-hanger. It meant that Butterfly’s final achingly sad gesture, giving the child a tiny stars-and-stripes to greet his father, was omitted. With the orchestra on stage, rather than in the pit, every detail of Puccini’s score could be heard – never has the brass’s fate motif sounded so louring or the timpani more like a one-man thunderstorm. Kazuki excelled in the primary-coloured score and the CBSO Chorus under Simon Halsey – I nominate them and their young counterparts in the Youth and Children’s Choruses as my stars of the season – delivered a mellifluous “Humming Chorus”. Another night to remember.

Norman Stinchcombe

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