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Madama Butterfly: Timeless tragedy at Staatsoper

As a vintage staging of Puccini's opera draws to a close this weekend, we deliver our verdict on this tragic classic.

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Puccini’s tragic opera on stage at Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola

Puccini’s tragic opera retells John Luther Long’s 1898 short story, itself based on stories told by his sister – who’d lived in Japan – and a French naval officer’s semi-autobiographical novel. Puccini got writing after seeing a play version in London. Following 1904’s lukewarm reception, by 1907 he’d tweaked it up to the more popular three-act opera widely known today.

This production is Staatsoper’s 1991 staging, and it looks… well… old-fashioned. Lots of shoji (paper screens), kimonos, paper parasols and a child actor so wooden they’d be better off using a marionette. Though perhaps looking dated is the point, placing this uncomfortable tale of culture clash, patriarchal privilege, child brides/prostitution, romantic projection/self-deception, cowardice and hara-kiri firmly in Japanese history. (In fact, a law there still allowing girls to marry at 16 will only become void in 2022.)

After a LOT of musical exposition, things only finally get rolling towards the end of Act One, after minor characters and chorus leave Cio-Cio-san and Pinkerton to get cosy on their arranged wedding night. In September, this meant that two real-life partners, French-Sicilian tenor Roberto Alagna and Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, got to believably fall in love all over again, sing flawlessly, suffer tragedy, then head away to live happily ever after.

New leads Saioa Hernández of Spain and Romanian star Ștefan Pop took over in October. Mexican Alfredo Daza, an extremely sympathetic Sharpless, has also been replaced by Estonian Lauri Vasar. Pole Natalia Skrycka as Suzuki is the superb Act Two anchor as the bewitching music and drama deepen, finally delivering Butterfly’s soul into darkness.

Madama Butterfly, D: Eike Gramss, Staatsoper, Oct 21, 23 (In Italian with English and German surtitles.)