Royal Opera House, London, ★★★★
Nobody could accuse Covent Garden of backwardness in virtue-signalling. They recently announced plans for trigger-warnings when murder, rape, and sexual exploitation were on the agenda: difficult, because such things are standard fare in grand opera. These days it’s enough for an opera to be branded ‘a work of its time’ for the axe to be brought out, regardless of the fact that that phrase is applicable to every work, from every period in history.
The Royal Opera’s 20-year-old Leiser-Caurier production of Madama Butterfly had been scheduled for the chop, due to its alleged peddling of sexual exploitation, racial stereotyping, and suicide. But it has now been reprieved on condition that its revival director Daniel Dooner finds a slant which doesn’t offend those who regard the opera as an expression of racist stereotyping.
One could argue that this opera is actually an indictment of racism: Puccini’s passionate music makes no apology for Pinkerton’s breezy casualness over the results of his selfish fling. But in the eyes of a pressure group like BEATS – British East and South-East Asians in Theatre and on Screen – some expressions of racism are too deeply embedded to be resolved any time soon; for example, ethnically insensitive casting may be on the wane, but not fast enough.
Covent Garden has been holding workshops designed to extirpate what BEATS regard as negative stereotyping, with Japanese specialists teaching performers how to move, speak, apply make-up, be costumed, and even how to laugh.
But the issue is not so simple, particularly with regard to Japan where stereotyping is still the order of the day. Watch middle-aged Japanese greet each other in the street, and see how degrees of respect are measured in hand gestures and the depth of a bow; the scrupulously calibrated rules governing Japanese forms of address are reflected by behavioural rules which are no less inflexible. Japanese millennials may behave like Western ones, but Japanese over-forties stereotype each other – and themselves – zealously. So the Covent Garden team has had to make a distinction between stereotyping for ethnic authenticity (good), and stereotyping as a racist tool (bad).
This week’s revival shows they’ve done that job so well that one doesn’t for a moment question the ethnicity of the cast. It’s all a matter of discreet tweaks to the characters’ posture and to the slowness of their movement, which recalls that of Noh theatre. This allows us to focus entirely on the drama.
My one caveat concerns the Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian’s incarnation of Cio-Cio-San in the first act. She’s supposed to be a penniless fifteen-year–old geisha, but Haroutounian plays her as a mature woman with no hint of diffidence, capable of handling any situation with ease; the pathos we want simply isn’t there. But once things get going, the drama is blisteringly poignant, and superbly sung.
Paired with Freddie de Tommazo’s convincing Pinkerton, Haroutounian soars through the big Act Two duet with surging power and great beauty of sound, and she turns her vigil awaiting Pinkerton’s return into a glorious vocal and dramatic display; as her maid Suzuki, mezzo Patricia Bardon brings sympathetic force to their duets.
Once the news of Pinkerton’s defection has sunk in, the drama moves towards its denouement with fateful relentlessness. Under Dan Ettinger’s direction the orchestra evinces all the tender cruelty of the score, while Lucas Meacham, as the US consul Sharpless, drives the moral home.
As she progresses from hope to despair, from rage to resignation, Haroutounian’s singing becomes imbued with a fearful majesty which grips like a vice. The final image – of a cherry tree dropping leaves, while Cio-Cio-San lies dying, and her tiny son waves a Stars and Stripes flag – has searing finality.