What a marvellous tear-jerker this opera is. Puccini pulls out one affecting melody after another with masterly invention and ensures that the listener can never relax and forget the tragedy around the corner for a moment. This production is part of the open-air summer season by the Teatro dellOpera di Roma, set in the uniquely grandiose ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, which tower over the stage, adding a timeless element to all the action taking place on stage below.

Sets, by Renzo Giacchieri, are simple and traditional, and highly effective. Drawing on a phrase of Butterflys, Sotto il gran ponte del cielo non v donna pi felice di voi, Giacchieri places an arching bridge to the back of the stage, from one side to the other, over which arrive and depart most of the important figures of the action and the chorus in the exquisite humming scene.

The bridge, so reminiscent of those found in all Japanese gardens, and the scenery so clearly inspired by Hokusais prints, transport the spectator immediately into an exotic but real world far away.

Donato Renzetti, the conductor, extracted every ounce of emotion and japonaiserie from the score and accompanied the singers with great sensitivity.

Butterfly was Maria Pia Ionata, the experienced Puccini soprano; she started somewhat uncertainly, both in pitch and acting, at times bobbing her head from side to side so frequently as to seem almost a caricature of a Japanese geisha, more suited to the comic, fairy-tale Japan of the Mikado than to tragedy on the scale here. However she soon progressed, with both voice and stage presence rapidly gathering strength, and her pure and soaring delivery, combined with acting touched with infinite pathos, produced a memorable performance.

Barbara Di Castri, Suzuki, was wonderfully touching in her devotion to Butterfly and in her dismay at the turn of events, and she sang beautifully.

The thoughtless and craven Pinkerton, Roberto Aronica, had a certain heroic ring to his voice, but it was hard to see what had so smitten Butterfly.

Giovanni Meoni, was excellent in the rather thankless part of Sharpless, as was Mario Bolognesi in the role of Goro, the unprincipled marriage-broker and about as low a being as possible, while the Yamadori of Davide Malandra was surely what every rational geisha must dream of encountering.

In spite of the frequent incursions of noisy seagulls overhead this was a wonderful evenings entertainment, and a pack-out.

Teatro dellOpera di Roma, Terme di Caracalla, Rome, tel. 06481601, www.opera.roma.it. Further performances: 13, 15 July 2005

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