Already enjoying its fifth revival, Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madam Butterfly, now directed by Sarah Tipple, is a firm favourite with English National Opera audiences. Unashamedly cinematographic in style, with drama preceding the music striking up and a tightly choreographed curtain call at the end, its unique selling point is its visually stunning design.
Michael Levine’s set consists of shiny dark floorboards that slope upwards to a large rectangular gap, through which characters enter the stage, and from behind which red, orange, green or grey light glows depending on the mood. A similarly reflective surface slopes diagonally upwards so that even when characters are behind paper doors on stage we still see their image, showing how little they can hide their true feelings.
In Act I, however, there seems to be a mismatch between the basic, sparse, clinically straight set, and the colourful, exquisitely detailed costumes of the Japanese women and paper doors that clutter the stage. This may well be a way of contrasting the American and Japanese cultures, but for the viewer the drama feels too incongruent with the setting to be truly moving.
This is, however, the worst that can be said against the staging, which contains a wealth of impressive effects. With Act II taking place in Butterfly’s house, the breaking up of the Spartan set through the use of flowers hanging on strings creates a convincing image of the world that she inhabits. Her son is played by a puppet operated by three figures in black from Blind Summit Theatre. He is arguably more moving than a real child might be because his head movements and gestures can be manipulated so precisely to produce the desired effect.
In another sense, a puppet is the perfect metaphor for a child who is to be owned and manipulated at will by his American ‘parents’. Indeed, as Butterfly commits suicide the sight of her blindfolded son waving an American flag, totally oblivious to what is happening, is deeply moving, as is the unravelling of her red obi to depict streams of blood flowing from her body. Other telling details include Butterfly being dressed at the start as if she is being wrapped up like a neat little package for Pinkerton, and veiled figures waving scarves, which could represent the spirits of her ancestors, as her uncle renounces her.
David Parry’s effective no-nonsense translation also effects the emotions that the audience feel. We are inclined to laugh when hearing in plain English that Pinkerton’s house is on a 999 year lease, only with a monthly option, or that the house is built to last when we can see that it has paper walls. When we do so, however, we are surely laughing at the ‘gullibility’ of the Japanese, which makes us complicit in Pinkerton’s crime. This makes us feel more involved in the proceedings, although undoubtedly less comfortable, than if we were able to sit in judgement as detached observers who were justified in taking the moral high ground.
Timothy Richards is effective as Pinkerton with his assertive but lightly toned tenor voice, and his performance is all the stronger for not making the character the embodiment of evil. He simply reveals Pinkerton to be too weak to fight against his instinct to do as he wishes, or those individual moments when he is actually enraptured with Butterfly.
In the title role Dina Kuznetsova combines some wondrous vocal moments when her vibrato is refined and deeply moving with a few occcasions when tuning is not at a premium. Her acting is almost too good for the role. So much is vested in her head tilt and hand gestures that it seems Butterfly understands what she is doing when she renounces her ancestors and converts to Christianity, making it difficult for us to believe in the character’s total naivety. There is, however, an incredible moment at the end of ‘One beautiful day’ when her body appears to float momentarily, and there are no problems at all in the final act when her fragility, vulnerability and total sense of despair feel all too real.
As Sharpless, George von Bergen possseses a firm baritone instrument. Occasionally he feels too much like a caricature of American genteel distinction to be believable, but for the most part he does appear to genuinely bleed when he sees what Butterfly is going through. Pamela Helen Stephen provides an excellent all-round performance as Suzuki, while Gianluca Marciano, making his ENO debut, conducts with subtlety and balance, although the resulting experience sometimes feels more spiritual than visceral.
Mary Plazas sings Butterfly, Gwyn Hughes Jones plays Pinkerton and Martin Fitzpatrick conducts for certain perfomances. For further details visit the English National Opera website.