Madama Butterfly, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

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When Sir Alexander Gibson opened Scottish Opera’s account at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow in 1962, he could not have envisaged that, 45 years later, east European touring outfits would be a big draw there – cheaper and more populist than the native company, now resident five minutes away at the Theatre Royal. Glasgow’s city council, which owns both venues, hires them out to all-comers. While Scottish Opera struggles to maintain its profile in a hostile funding climate, the unsubsidised Chisinau National Opera from Moldova makes occasional raids with a cut-price alternative. There seems to be a separate audience for each, with no cross-fertilisation, so no one can accuse the east Europeans or their commercial agents of distorting the market. But to justify its subsidy, Scottish Opera must offer something extra.

Such thoughts are prompted by Madama Butterfly, with which the company has just emerged from hibernation. Back in 1962 this was the work Gibson chose for its debut, but times have changed: Puccini has become a favourite calling-card of the cheap-and-cheerful merchants from afar. Is Scottish Opera’s version worth the extra outlay? David McVicar’s staging, new in 2000, would be an asset to any company. Restrained and refined, it shows a subtle understanding of Japanese aesthetics and does not try to compete with the singing. But with no McVicar on hand to rehearse this revival, the show has lost its flavour. John Hudson’s Pinkerton is rough-and-ready, the comprimarios are ordinary, the ad hoc chorus sounds weak. Worst of all is the conducting: Francesco Corti races through the score as if he has a train to catch. The orchestra is grotesquely loud, its phrasing crude and heartless.

The performance is rescued by its two female principals. Thanks to Jennifer Johnston’s luscious singing and intelligent acting, Suzuki emerges with uncommon presence and strength of character. As for Rebecca Nash’s Butterfly, she has the voice, the notes, the inner beauty – a rare combination. With that sort of quality, Scottish Opera still represents good value.
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