Lyric Opera Productions: Madama Butterfly at National Concert Hall, 21 February 2017

Lyric Opera‘s return to the National Concert Hall sees the company stage a long-standing favourite: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This tragic tale of love and betrayal never fails to capture the attention of the Irish public, drawing opera-lovers of all ages to a colourful production. Director Vivian Coates’ design sees turn-of-the century Japan evoked in jewel-toned kimono, muted set colour, and a bonze straight out of a period woodblock print. The overall design is in keeping with the iconography with which Madama Butterfly has become synonymous; free from postmodern reinterpretation, it is seamlessly classical.

The opera begins with a lively introduction from the orchestra. John Rigby’s conducting is evocative, relaying Puccini’s sentimental scoring without any hitch. During the first act, the music is tackled with such enthusiasm that it almost overwhelms the action onstage, but the latter half sees a balance reached and maintained through the following acts.

Lucia Lucas’ Sharpless is the perfect operatic cariacature: affable, avuncular, and slightly bumbling. Julian Hubbard’s Pinkerton is neither moustache-twirlingly malicious, nor a cariacature of remorse. Rather, he seems out of place, his movements awkward by comparison to Puccini’s lush scoring, his expressions dwarfed by the colour and drama of Cio-Cio San and her wedding party. He is the archetype of the uncomfortable outsider, intruding on that which he does not understand. Even so, the character receives a pantomime-esque boo during his final bow, showing a level of audience engagement unusual within the NCH’s walls.

Hye-Youn Lee’s voice is, arguably, the most powerful in the whole ensemble. Her entrance as Cio-Cio San is given appropriate ceremony, with her vocalisations beginning offstage as myriad geisha in resplendent kimono process before her. The Lyric Opera chorus perfectly capture the erraticism and drama of weddings everywhere: the back-and-forth between characters, familial tensions, and posturing. Cio-Cio San’s eventual appearance is tantalizing, even when she is present onstage, she is hidden from us by a large parasol. The delayed gratification of seeing the blissful Butterfly is highly effective, with the audience craning in their seats to see, not unlike the members of a real-life wedding party craning to see a bride’s dress. From her first appearance to the final act, Lee’s performance is stunning. Her understanding of the character of Butterfly is apparent through her sensitive vocal approach, which never sacrifices emotion for the sake of volume or technique.

The overall aesthetic of the performance is consistent and classical. Act II continues the visual tropes of the first act, seeing the entry of Cio-Cio San’s servants mirror the wedding procession of Act I. Arann Scully’s lighting design sees the passing of time artfully illustrated, and highlights key moments with sudden changes in the colour palette.

The final act is masterfully executed. Butterfly’s death scene has all of the creeping tension of an early horror film: we know what is going to happen, but are nonetheless captivated and disturbed as we watch it unfold. The end, when it comes, is followed by resounding applause, the audience showing itself more than willing to be moved once again by this beautifully tragic story.