The Daily Telegraph

A sanitised Butterfly that flutters above the depths

- Rupert Christians­en

Opera Madama Butterfly Royal Opera, Covent Garden

In deference to the needs of out-of-towners, Covent Garden’s management opened this revival with a show that began at the ungodly hour of noon. Watching grand opera before 6pm seems faintly sinful to me, but it was refreshing to be part of a raptly attentive audience that wasn’t the usual blasé first-night crowd and I hail such matinees as an excellent thing.

I only wish that the Royal Opera always presented standard repertory as meticulous­ly as it does here (I can’t get the wretched Trovatore earlier this season out of my head).

The presence of the original directors must have helped: Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser returned to rehearse their 2003 production, and the amount of fine detail indicated that it had benefited from their attention.

For my taste, they take a too sanitised approach to what is essentiall­y a brutally honest view of the first phase of American cultural imperialis­m. Caurier and Leiser don’t create any suggestion of the poverty of Butterfly’s hinterland, and several recent stagings have hit harder on the theme of sleazy sexual exploitati­on. But it seems ungrateful to complain when the story is so clearly told through such sensitive characteri­sation and visual imagery of a spare, cool beauty, that stands in rich counterpoi­nt to Puccini’s sumptuousl­y lyrical score.

Ermonela Jaho sings the title role (to be followed later in the run by Anna Maria Martinez). After her affecting interpreta­tions of Mimi, Manon and Suor Angelica, this Albanian soprano has become something of a favourite here, and her nuanced portrayal of Butterfly will surely win her more admirers.

But it’s a lightweigh­t interpreta­tion, emphasisin­g the girl’s fragility and innocence rather than her stubborn self-delusion, and vocally she is on the light side for the climaxes of “Che tua madre” and the death scene. In the interests of preserving her soft-grained timbre, perhaps this is a part she shouldn’t sing too often.

Marcelo Puente makes a handsome dog of a Pinkerton, rather throaty at first, but delivering sturdily in the love duet and “Addio, fiorito asil”; Scott Hendricks is a decent Sharpless and Elizabeth DeShong is terrific as a fiercely defensive Suzuki.

What lifts the performanc­e, however, is the superlativ­e conducting of the inexhausti­ble Antonio Pappano, taking a busman’s Innocence: Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho as Butterfly holiday from his heavy lifting on

Die Meistersin­ger. He gives the score a sharp, brilliant edge but never loses touch with the emotional core of an opera that ranks among the very greatest of the 20th century.

Until April 25. Tickets: 020 7304 4000;

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