Madam Butterfly: “top class and sensually powerful”

The CBSO perform Puccini’s masterwork, with Simon Hale in the audience.

The CBSO’s presentation of Giacomo Puccini’s tragic opera Madam Butterfly on the stage of Symphony Hall more than made up for the lack of traditional sets.

Top-class acting and singing skills supported by a sensually powerful but also delicate reading of the score put the emphasis firmly on the human drama. With authentic Japanese costumes and postures and the creative use of props in the limited space available surrounding the orchestra, this was a performance that should have almost come with a warning to the emotionally vulnerable.

CBSO music director Kazuki Yamada, who hails from Japan, was clearly on home ground as he conducted the orchestra in perfect harmony with the cast, helping to drive up the dramatic tension while helping to paint the nuances of the characters and the cross-cultural collision central to the opera.

Pene Pati brought out the full force of his rich tenor voice playing American navy lieutenant FP Pinkerton who marries Cio-Cio San – Butterfly – and leaves her pregnant after treating the experience as little more than a shore-leave fling.

Japanese soprano Maki Mori played the 15-year-old Geisha who believes their love is for real and waits longingly for her husband’s return, at a time where the values of 1904 Japan clashed with those of a buccaneering imperialist America.

From her playfully coy mood when she and Pinkerton first meet to her grief and suicide after she finds out that he has remarried and wants to take away her child, Maki Mori delivered a brilliant and heart-rending performance.

The faultless cast included Christopher Purves as a convincing Sharpless – the American consul, Christopher Lemmings as the marriage broker, both with some responsibility for the consequences of Pinkerton’s boorish actions, and Hiroka Yamashita as Butterfly’s lowly maid Suzuki, whose fine mezzo-soprano voice was almost a lament for her inability to influence the outcome.

Brilliantly directed by Thomas Henderson, the highpoints of the semi staging were the positioning of Japanese silk screens at the back of the stage from where Butterfly first appeared and behind which she concluded her nuptials and eventually took her life in dramatic silhouette. So too were the showering of petals from the Symphony Hall ceiling, first all-white and later all red, to represent love and death, and the use of a well-kept uniform kept on a hangar to represent Butterfly’s child.

A big tribute should also go to the CBSO Chorus who performed admirably from the choir stalls, doubling up as the marriage entourage and later performing the famous Humming Chorus, with its beautiful emotional melody in Butterfly’s final moment of optimism, with great sensitivity. With no doubt few dry eyes, the prolonged standing ovation from a full house audience provided a fitting end to another season of top-class CBSO concerts.

The CBSO will perform Franz Schubert’s Symphony No 9 along with Schubert songs with Mary Bevan as soloist at 7:30pm on Wednesday 17th July at Town Hall, Birmingham.

For tickets call 0121 780 3333 or book online at