When Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly first burst onto the Coliseum stage in 2005, little did we know that by the time of its third revival, a mere four years later, its creator would sadly be with us no more. And, to an extent, this production suffers from not having Minghella directly at the helm.
As one might expect from this renowned film director, the production features some stunning visual effects, and carries a certain cinematographic air, the ‘box-like’ set drawing the eye into the action. It consists of shiny dark floorboards that slope upwards to a large rectangular gap, through which characters enter the stage, and from behind which blue, orange or red light shines depending on the mood. A large mirror also slopes diagonally up so that even when characters are behind paper doors on stage we still see their reflection, showing how little they can hide their true feelings.
But in the same way as a director has his own vision for a film and sets everything up to achieve that precisely, this production sometimes feels as if it cannot recapture Minghella’s original intentions. It doesn’t matter that this revival is directed and choreographed by his widow, Carolyn Choa, who was deeply involved in the first production, or that Judith Howarth also played the title role in the first revival. A slight alteration to a ‘shot’, a single occasion when an actor fails to capture what Minghella had in mind, and the experience is undermined.
The resulting weaknesses were most prevalent in Act One. Following a successful opening, when the drama on stage preceded the striking up of the orchestra (conducted by Edward Gardner), all too frequently there was a mismatch between the basic, sparse, clinically straight set, and the colourful, exquisitely detailed costumes of the Japanese women and paper doors that cluttered the stage. This may have been a way of contrasting the American and Japanese cultures, but it felt more disconcerting than illuminating, and I suspect it was because Minghella wasn’t there to manage it.
Nevertheless, Minghella’s production was always about using his astute understanding of what works well visually and dramatically to bring out the characters’ basic nature in a new way (rather than to shed new light on the characters), and the singers rose to the challenge. Dressed in a white suit, Bryan Hymel as Pinkerton adopted a brilliantly carefree persona, which highlighted his American instinct to live for the moment, and his sense of ease was reflected marvellously in his voice.
In direct contrast, Judith Howarth as Butterfly emphasised the connection she felt with her ancestors, and her continued devotion to Pinkerton revealed her Japanese notions of permanence and loyalty. In this way, everything came together at the end of Act One as Butterfly submitted to Pinkerton on their wedding night, and the staging was nailed with paper lanterns (or moons) surrounding the lovers as the lights dimmed.
And happily, if Act One saw only a few occasions when the staging truly worked, Acts Two and Three witnessed them in abundance. In Act Two Howarth’s voice, filled with anguish and despair, found its groove in lamenting her husband’s three year absence, and her performance of ‘One beautiful day’ was as spine tingling as any I’ve heard. With the scene taking place in Butterfly’s house, the breaking up of the Spartan set through the use of flowers hanging on strings gave us an insight into her world, whilst her son was played by a puppet operated by three figures in black from Blind Summit Theatre. He was more moving than a real child might have been because his facial appearance and head movements could be manipulated so precisely to produce the desired effect.
In Act Three the now bare stage was ideally suited to portraying Butterfly as an isolated lover as she contemplated, and then committed, suicide. As she did so, the sight of her blindfolded son waving an American flag, totally oblivious to what was happening, was highly emotional, as was the unravelling of her red sash to depict streams of blood flowing from her body.
If this production does have it weak moments in Act One, Minghella’s visual effects still hit home on the majority of occasions, and when they do they are amazing. If Minghella had never directed a single film, if he had never created anything in his life other than this Madam Butterfly, it would still stand as an incredible gift to leave the world. If you haven’t seen it already, it’s one to experience.