A red carpet was introduced at The Lowry for Opera North’s revival of Madama Butterfly by Puccini. It gave a welcome glamorous touch to an evening which marked the opening night of the winter season at the venue.

I’ve seen a version of this before, but age and gin forbid me from putting a date on it. Nevertheless, some of the cast were familiar as well as the minimal set. It is an interesting take on the 19th century opera premise of girl-meets-boy, girl dies. More girl is sold to boy, girl is forced into culturally oppressive suicide by unforgiving weight of American imperialism. That aside, it is a powerful and bold tale succinctly sung and staged in two acts.

Opera-North-Madama-Butterfly-dress-rehearsalBut the first act seemed subdued and a bit perfunctory. Lieutenant Pinkerton (Merunas Vitulskis) of the US Navy buys a 999-year lease on a house overlooking Nagasaki Bay, as well as a shorter lease on a Japanese bride, Cio Cio San (Anne Sophie Duprels), the eponymous Madama Butterfly. Pinkerton is warned of the fragility of Butterfly by the ever-sympathetic American counsel, Sharpless (Peter Savidge). His arrogance and lust dismiss Sharpless’s concern as he takes Butterfly for his own. Perhaps it seemed subdued in the light of the emotion of the second act and perfunctory for all the ground work it must do to get us there? If this seems overly critical, the first act was brought to an end by a pre-orgasmic love duet by Duprels and Vitilskis, beautifully sung and tender as the night.

Opera NorthThe second act finds Cio Cio San abandoned for three years, nearly broke with only her maid Suzuki (Ann Taylor) and a young child, Sorrow (Oliver Chambers/Ava Quinn) who will be renamed Joy on Pinkerton’s return. His return eminent, Cio Cio, Suzuki and Sorrow wait as the sun sets. Is there such a thing as a voiceless aria? The music, as dusk falls and dawn rises over Mount Fuji, is the most moving of the whole opera played by a talented orchestra conducted by Martin Pickard.

As Pinkerton arrives with his American bride, Butterfly is forced to consider giving up Sorrow. Telling all to return in half an hour, she knows what she must do. She commits ritual suicide in a musical crescendo that, I imagine, left few dry eyes in the house.

I had to skip Don Giovanni due to an appointment to see young teenage pop sensation Superorganism, but returned to my comfort zone on Saturday to see Verdi’s passion and politics opera, Un Ballo in Maschera. And I’m glad I did as it was an ecstatic performance of a first-time production by Opera North with Richard Farnes returning to conduct after stepping down as ON’s musical director. Gustavo (Rafael Rojas), the King of Sweden, returns victorious after a civil war. But plotters Count Ribbing (Dean Robinson) and Count Horn (Stephen Richardson) are keen to assassinate him. They finally enlist the help of Count Anckarstrom (Phillip Rhodes) when he finds out that the King has eyes for his wife, Amelia (Adrienn Miksch).

Opera NorthThe real star of the show is the masked ball of the title. Resplendent in purple with white faces and wigs, the cast beautifully hint at the debauched nature of the Swedish court, none more so than the truly seductive Oscar (Tereza Gevorgyan). The fun comes to a halt as Gustavo is killed by Anckarstrom. Before he dies, he absolves Amelia of any guilt.

It was a wonderfully coherent opera, with the costume design outstanding. I doubt if I will see a better opera this year.

By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent