Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Madam Butterfly @ Coliseum, London

31 January, 8, 14, 17, 20, 26, 29 February, 5, 7 March 2008


Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: ENO)

The opera world is fast losing faith in movie-star glamour. The considerable achievements of Visconti and Zeffirelli on the operatic stage have recently been overshadowed by modish frippery from film directors favouring ego over ethos.

But whilst Anthony Minghella‘s Madam Butterfly might still provoke arguments about style and substance, it is fast establishing itself as a classic to rank alongside his greatest film successes. Having premiered at ENO in 2005 the production has since picked up an Olivier Award and dazzled at the New York Met, and it has now come back to base with revival director Carolyn Choa at the helm.

The Nagasaki of Minghella’s mind is located entirely in (that favoured land) the abstract. There are few fussy trappings of japonaiserie and, sensibly, he steers clear of the saccharine approach that has tainted this work in the past. His concept is clean, clear, and for the most part consistent. Choreography is used subtly, to enhance rather than distract, and the piece runs seamlessly from one exquisitely composed scene to the next.

Less successful is his (now famous) depiction of Sorrow, Butterfly’s mute son, as a marionette. The puppet is certainly expressive, and expertly trailed by three masked stagehands, but its strange, bird-like innocence places it uncomfortably between the symbolic and the naturalistic. Bunraku might be all the rage, but dislocated from its true context, the device feels too much like a token nod to the east.

Judith Howarth brings a touching naivety to the title role, providing some essential emotional engagement, which is nicely complimented by Karen Cargill‘s Suzuki, and her soprano has an earthy quality that seems suited to the character. Reprising the part of Pinkerton, Gwyn Hughes Jones sings with a warmth that is perhaps lacking elsewhere, and his stocky proportions neatly personify America as the bumbling and bumptious impostor.

Michael Levine‘s set designs are simple and metallic, pitching sharply towards a backdrop, that spans all the colours of a lava lamp, and a reflective screen that tilts and quivers above the stage. There are riotous kimonos, designed by Han Feng, lurid sunsets and an obligatory shower of cherry blossom, but the visuals are never overpowering. Scenes saturated with acidic colours are checked by some more bleached and luminous, during the love duet, for example, and in anticipation of Butterfly’s suicide. While more delicate operas can feel vandalised by artsy light effects and dancing streamers (a certain Monteverdi work springs to mind), Puccini’s score is robust enough to cope with such broad cinematic gestures.

David Parry, who provided a new English translation for the project, conducts with clarity, though the orchestra seems a little lack-lustre at times. In fact, precision in the place of passion seems to be an overarching theme. While Minghella’s production is far more thoughtful and humane than its critics might suggest, it is still lacking some all-important oomph.


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