ARGUABLY Puccini’s best – and certainly best loved – operas, Madama Butterfly is a perennial favourite.

The story is elegant in its simplicity, the music is divine and despite its exotic setting – the Japanese city of Nagasaki – it is easily accessible to modern audiences.

In contrast to anything by Verdi, Wagner, Rossini and certainly Mozart, it seems refreshingly modern – and not just because it features a United States Naval officer in crisp, white uniform, looking like he could have stepped straight off a modern warship.

Its enduring appeal, and relevance to audiences, rests in the enduringly familiar arc of this heartbreaking tale.

The story of the Geisha who falls in love with the handsome sailor, then counts the seconds until his delayed return, only to face the horror of the all-too-predictable denouement, is as old as time and echoes in countless books, films and soap operas.

It’s a story of romance and excitement, of innocence betrayed, of love smashed on the rocks, and of noble self-sacrifice.

Ellen Kent Opera’s production of the Far Eastern classic at the New Theatre was a work of sheer brilliance, distinguished by virtuoso performances by cast and orchestra and a wonderfully evocative stage set. While the painted sets for the constantly changing scenes in La Boheme the previous night looked a little tired, faded and dated, this was world class, benefitting, of course, from the fact it remained in place throughout.

We were transported to 1904 Japan, with a pretty pavilion surrounded by blossom, while, stage right, water gushed through a bamboo pipe from a fountain. There we meet the dashing Lieutenant Pinkerton (Georgio Meladze and his beautiful wife-to-be Cio-Cio San - aka ‘Butterfly’ (the show-stealing Elena Dee).

The orchestra, conducted by Nicolae Dohotaru, strikes up and carries along on an emotional tsunami, leaving us bruised and, in my case, in tears, right up to the climax of that plunging dagger.

They have us entirely in their hands.

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The biggest cheers quite rightly go to Dee, while Meladze is greeted with booing – so emotionally invested we have become. He was also wonderful, of course, as was the US Consul Sharpless (a sonorous Lurie Gisca) and maid Suzuki (a sweet Myroslava Shvakh-Pekar) who, like us, could only look on as the tragedy unfurled in front of them.


La Boheme: 'Larky antics in the garret'

Last weekend’s two-day feast of Puccini, supplied courtesy of producer and director Ellen Kent, began with a workmanlike, always enjoyable, production of his first major success, La bohème.

From its earliest performances at the close of the 19th century, this hugely tuneful, supremely touching, often comic portrayal of life in the Parisian demimonde has continued to delight audiences around the world.

The work is popular even with those who dislike opera, among them George V who famously, if foolishly, praised it for being the shortest in the repertoire (he’d forgotten Strauss’s Elektra).

Actually, it’s not especially brief, as was demonstrated on Friday, when it was interrupted by two intervals and its musical delights were explored, sometimes at leisurely pace, under the baton of Nicolae Dohotaru.

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He oddly went awol, incidentally, at the start of Act II, leaving the orchestra and a puzzled audience in the dark – in both senses of the words – for some minutes.

By then we had enjoyed the larky antics in the garret involving poet Rodolfo (Vitalii Liskovetskyi), painter Marcello (Iurie Gisca), musician Schaunard (Vitalii Cebotari) and philosopher Colline (Vadim Cernovettky).

(The singers’ names reveal that Ms Kent maintains strong contact with the opera companies of Eastern Europe.)

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After the highjinks, which include the ragging of landlord Benoit (Eugeniu Ganea), we see the first meeting between Rodolfo and seamstress Mimi (Alyona Kistenyova), whose doomed affair is the focus of the opera’s matter and music.

The arias of introduction, in which both singers excelled, lead into the ecstatic love duet, during which the brass players, so important in this work – and especially at its shattering climax – gave it a little too much welly.

The subsidiary affair involving Marcello and Musetta (Maria Tonina) was well presented, with the flighty gal equipped on this occasion with a winsome cockerpoo companion, Molly.