Glyndebourne’s new season opens with a pair of revivals. Annilese Miskimmon’s staging of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, first seen during the 2016 tour, is new to the main festival. Richard Jones’s production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier premiered in 2014. Both divided opinion when new, and both are essentially anti-Romantic in stance, stripping away the veneer of sentimentality that each work has accumulated over time.
Miskimmon’s Butterfly is more a reworking than a straight revival, though the basic concept remains the same. She updates the opera to the closing years of the American occupation of Japan, and places the narrative in the wider context of an exploitative system that offers local girls the possibility of escaping poverty by becoming GI brides and allows US servicemen to take advantage of conveniently dissolvable marriages. Two years ago, Miskimmon’s anger rode roughshod over the opera’s humanity, resulting in a hardness of edge that sat uneasily with the score’s emotive force. This time round, greater subtlety of detail combined with striking performances allows the drama fully to hit home.
Butterfly is played by the Moldovan soprano Olga Busuioc, whose exceptional way with dynamics and tone colour allows her to encompass both the naivety of the opening scenes and the tragic emotions of the later acts. We can completely understand her attraction to Joshua Guerrero’s handsome if weak-willed Pinkerton, and there’s a real sense of rapture in their love duet. But we also notice the telling streak of pride that lurks beneath her vulnerability in the way she loftily dismisses Simon Mechliński’s Yamadori and rounds on Elizabeth DeShong’s fiercely devoted Suzuki. Omer Meir Wellber’s conducting, meanwhile, has a tremendous, slow-burning intensity that draws us relentlessly into the opera’s unsettling world.
Musically, Der Rosenkavalier is equally strong for the most part, although conductor Robin Ticciati got off to an awkward start on opening night with an uncharacteristically lacklustre account of the prelude. Rachel Willis-Sørensen is the outstanding Marschallin, sumptuous of tone, witty yet sad. Kate Lindsey makes a comparably fine Octavian, and is gauche, funny, extremely touching in moments of bewilderment. Elizabeth Sutphen’s Sophie sounds exquisite, while Brindley Sherratt’s Ochs combines louche charm with genuine menace.
Jones’s staging, however, is by turns admirable and perplexing. As one might expect, he is strong on the class divisions that underpin the opera, sharply differentiating between a declining aristocracy, an emerging bourgeoisie and an urban proletariat on the make. His treatment of the protagonists has great clarity. Ochs’s humiliation of Sophie in act two has rarely felt more uncomfortable, and time really seems to stand still in the Presentation of the Rose and the final Trio. Against that, however, must be set a quirkiness that sometimes gets in the way. The designs, surreally jumbling periods from the 18th century to the 1970s, sit uneasily with an opera that is essentially a realistic comedy of manners. The Marschallin muses on her past as a psychoanalytic patient on Freud’s couch, which strikes an awkward note. And there are moments when parades of servants and flunkies, endlessly shifting furniture, prove intrusive. It doesn’t quite add up to a theatrically satisfying whole, though it is unquestionably beautiful to listen to.
• At Glyndebourne until 26 June (Der Rosenkavalier) and 18 July (Madama Butterfly). Box office: 01273 815000. Madama Butterly will be broadcast live in cinemas and on www.glyndebourne.com on 21 June.