English National Opera
Madam Butterfly one of opera’s most enduring tales of unrequited love. Puccini’s poignant score follows the tragic tale of Cio Cio San, a young Japanese girl who falls in love with American naval officer Pinkerton, with devastating consequences.
This production is a revival of the work of Anthony Minghella’s superb 2005 version. The director of The English Patient (1996) he only ever directed this one opera. His cinematic viewpoint flushes this production through with his sense of style, gorgeous set pieces and the sensual focus of colour and recurring themes which gather in momentum to the wretched end of Butterfly and the operas tragic end.
There are some superb disciplines working together in this piece, the puppetry from Blind Summit Theatre company brings Butterfly’s child to life, reflecting her hopes while giving her the unconditional love she so desperately craves. The emotive and engaging puppet gives us a tenderness and vulnerability which is presented with a simple but effective technique. The set changes, all flying panels and veiled supporting ensemble; like shadows they flick at the staging, gliding and hiding with a sense of elegant humour and disclosure. The computerised lighting that glides silently into place from Peter Mumford, fans which fold desire, flick contempt and suggest knives and razors are beautifully used and blend into the formal delights of Carolyn Choa’s choreography, the highly polished set distilling elements of the Meiji Era, all black lacquer and sombre reflections allow us the formal interactions of form and use that typical early 20th century Japanese art and a real triumph from designer Michael Levine. Along with the eye-popping costumes from Han Feng. Their vivid colours leap out like polished foil and the delicious use of fabric from the opening shot to the final ghastly ending, this is a feast for the eyes.
I adored it, its dreamlike quality allowing me to overcome my dislike of the story – a 15 year old girl, taken advantage of by an older white American who knowingly uses her for his own hollow passion, then discards her when his ship moves on. Although the exposure of imperial, misogyny and colonial attitudes is done with delicate irony here, Puccini still rules the narrative and the lack of agency in Butterfly’s character is the black heart of this opera. Her perceived options being so terribly awful.
American naval officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is sung by Dimitri Pittas with a ruthless charm. His clear masterful voice capturing the callous imperiousness of the man and his time, but also giving us insight into what he really wants, from Butterfly and from his own life. Superb singing from Pittas although during the first half he was slightly overshadowed by the voluminous orchestra. Welsh sopranos Natalia Romaniw’s London debut as 15-year-old Cio-Cio San (Madam Butterfly) is enchanting from the first moment, capturing all the delicate hopes and dreams of this innocent, while giving her real heart. She sings and we are transported into the world of Butterfly, a world that may be the triumph of self-delusion but also one filled with the longing for love. It’s incredibly poignant, and she sings with such brilliant clarity that every emotional point is connected up into a sublime whole. Her death is almost unbearable, real sadness and the folk next to me wept.
Roderick Williams’s in the role of US consul Sharpless is perfect casting, full of conviction but also a gentle humorous edge who makes Sharpless a more rounded fellow in this production. He sees all. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Windsor-Lewis gives genuine character to Suzuki and allows us to see her own complex devotion with a clarity, her pure voice carrying clear emotional engagement and expressing that she also understands what’s really going on here.
The orchestra swells and swoons in equal measure conducted by Martyn Brabbin who leads the playing from ENO’s orchestra and the music pours out of them with thumping narrative, we are blown along and away by them.
But over all this lushness, relentless and voluptuous its the colour which grips. It’s rich, formal and endlessly revisited reds, blacks, golds and pure whites giving us a crepuscular vividness which seeps into the soul.
I’m not a fan of Madame Butterfly, as I’ve said before, but this production is an almost perfect blend of the arts on show. I can forgive an unpleasant narrative when it’s presented in such a beguiling way. Recommended.
Until 17th April 2020
St Martins Lane
For more info, a synopsis or to buy tickets see the ENO website here:
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