I took myself off to the Grand Theatre last night to see how Opera North is doing. Having been spoiled for years on the riches of Welsh National Opera, I was somewhat cautious of trying the local fare here. Many, many moons ago I did attend a Butterfly at this very theatre by this very company; it was OK. No more.
This Butterfly was far more than OK. At the end you should be so emotionally devastated you are almost unable to applaud, and indeed that is how I found myself. Yes, there were faults (I'll come on to those) but there were glories I shall not forget for a long time, and they deserve the lion's share.
Tim Alberry's production, receiving a first revival, is almost without qualification excellent. Beautiful colours, a simple design, different levels, no tricks, a beautiful backdrop and a well-thought through orchestral interlude between Acts II and III. I could have done without Goro's return at the very end. A quibble.
The principles were superb. The seconds - Ann Taylor's wonderful Suzuki and Peter Savidge's world-weary and world-class Sharpless were amongst the very best I have ever seen. Anne Sophie Duprels was a Butterfly of two halves for me; in Act I I found her voice too old, and I didn't warm to her. In Acts II & III I found her transformed. The stubborn-ness of her hope, her joy at the sighting of Pinkerton's ship, her weariness at the end of the night, her despair in the morning, her realisation of the truth - this was magnificent.
And in Noah Stewart's Pinkerton I felt I was watching the best actor I have ever seen on an opera stage. A beautiful voice & a devastatingly handsome man, he was everything Pinkerton should be (unlike the standard roly-poly naval officers we are so often subjected to). He drew my eye constantly because he was so very natural. His smile, his surprise, his impatience for his bride - if this was simply theatre, rather than opera, I would have felt I had seen a great actor. This is his website. Click onto the video (there may be an ad at the beginning to endure) and enjoy his singing. Signed by Decca, I hope to see more of him.
Faults? Apart from that re-appearance of Goro at the end to stare at the dead Butterfly (as if we needed the comment; we didn't, we felt it all), I was not entirely convinced by the orchestra & the conducting of Italian wunderkind Daniele Rustioni. OK, I have been spoiled by the orchestra of WNO, which I believe to be something rather special. It has a "sound": you can recognise a recording of the WNO orchestra, because they have that priceless commodity, a definable musical identity. They have a perfect opera orchestra sound: deep, rich & full, but never overwhelming for the singers. Here at Opera North, Rustioni did lose control occasionally for me: both in terms of some ragged edges (I wasn't always convinced the celli got him, though I must say that the opening of Act II was very tight) and also I mean this simply in terms of volume. Sometimes I couldn't hear the singers, who, in the big moments, were forcing the notes out over a band that was just banging it out. Not being able to hear the singers at an opera is not a good thing, especially when they were this good. Mr Rustioni - as you do more of this, please remember the voices on stage matter. Be kind to them. Making the band in the pit sound loud without actually being as loud as they possibly can be is a real art, and it allows the singers to flourish which means everyone comes across at their best.
Butterfly is about love. The perception of love. About falling madly in love with someone else who is merely using you, and how that ruins lives. Most (if not all) of us have been in that place to some degree, it's why art is so powerful. We recognise Butterfly not as social commentary on Imperialism as Americans abuse poor naive natives in "less advanced" cultures, but as personal history. We have all been Butterfly or Pinkerton or both. We have all (well, most of us) been used and dropped, or have used someone & dropped them, we have all know unequal relationships, we have all sat at the end of the rainbow and found not gold but broken dreams. Butterfly reminds us - with gut-wrenching beauty - that each person is a person, and that the cost of selfishly forgetting this truth is sometimes unacceptably high. If Pinkerton hears Sharpless' plea "Be careful" early on, there is no tragedy. But he wants his fun, and in his youthful enthusiasm thinks pleasure has no human cost.
Grand emotions in small moments. Grand betrayals unseen by anyone. Beauty & tragedy vying for pre-eminence. I love this opera, and I loved this performance.