Maria José Siri as Madam Butterfly
Vulnerability: Maria José Siri as Cio-Cio-San © Marco Brescia

From tea ceremonies to geisha mannequins in shop windows, a craze for Madama Butterfly has swept through Milan in recent weeks. One wonders whether La Scala’s premiere of this work in 1904, described as a “lynching” by its composer Puccini, had been so eagerly anticipated.

On Wednesday night, the opera itself arrived, opening La Scala’s season amid characteristic pomp. Yet such displays of privilege are becoming less characteristic of the house itself: with audiences ever younger, according to recent data, and the catcalling loggionisti noticeably reticent of late, this theatre has rarely appealed to a broader church.

Principal director Riccardo Chailly’s full Puccini cycle embodies much of what La Scala is doing to win over audiences, by programming more Italian opera and presenting it inventively. Madama Butterfly is usually heard in the final version Puccini settled on in the years following its botched debut. Here, Chailly performed a new edition of the original score.

While Puccini made his revisions in pursuit of a more modern voice, the orchestra under Chailly makes it clear that this was always a structurally and harmonically innovative work. This was a performance endowed with abundant detail, an impressive depth of sound and a suppleness in lyrical passages that was nowhere more luxuriant than in the glittering evocation of a Nagasaki dawn. The unbroken Act II, later split in half by Puccini, hurtled inexorably towards Cio-Cio-San’s demise.

The greatest strength of Alvis Hermanis’s production — a fantastical take on Japan with pastel kimonos, quivering cherry blossom and sliding panels displaying work by artists of the ukiyo-e (“floating world”) genre — was the finesse with which it traced the contours of music and drama. As a director, Hermanis has applied few unconventional interpretations of the narrative, preferring instead to evoke an atmosphere of fragility — for example, by applying the language of kabuki theatre to willowy geishas.

Maria José Siri’s Cio-Cio-San was short on vocal power but crafted her text artfully. She conveyed vulnerability in contrast with Bryan Hymel’s vital Pinkerton, rendered more callous without his pacifying aria “Addio, fiorito asil”, and Carlos Alvarez’s menacing Sharpless. Carlo Bosi was an active Goro, Annalisa Stroppa a moving Suzuki and Nicole Brandolino a strong cameo in the expanded role of Kate. Safe to say, the audience was left in no mood for a lynching this time.

Photograph: Marco Brescia

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