With drama preceding the music striking up and a tightly choreographed curtain call at the end, Anthony Minghella’s visually stunning production of Madam Butterfly is unashamedly cinematograhic in style. On its sixth revival for English National Opera, however, the staging feels even slicker than usual, and this may be because revival director Sarah Tipple had also been in charge of the revivals in 2012 and 2013.
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 people are behind paper doors on stage we still see their image, showing how little they can hide their true feelings. Their reflections have the same watery quality as those to be found in Monet paintings, only here they can appear above rather than below, indicating perhaps how certainties have been turned upside down.
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.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of telling details and the manner in which Pinkerton manages to be tactless at every turn when Cio-Cio-San shows him her possessions, asking if the spirits of her ancestors are toys, reveals much about their relationship. Everything then comes right at the end of Act I as Butterfly submits to Pinkerton on their wedding night with the staging seeing paper lanterns (or moons) surround the lovers as the lights dim. It is also noticeable how the production makes a conscious effort to highlight some of the mechanics that underlie it, as here (and elsewhere) we see spotlights at the side descend, with their movement deliberately forming part of the visual effect.
Act II ensures that things remain on a high. 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 all of the desired effects.
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. The poignancy of the closing image is also aided by seeing Pinkerton come into view, displaying obvious remorse and yet revealing the total weakness in himself that led to the tragedy in the first place.
David Parry’s 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 judgment as detached observers who were justified in taking the moral high ground.
Rena Harms is deeply affecting as Cio-Cio-San with a soprano that in essence possesses great strength and broadness, but which manifests itself with integrity and feeling. It is not entirely suited to exploring all facets of Butterfly’s character, as Harms’ technically superb performance of ‘Un bel dì’ feels too mature to capture the sweet innocence of the character. On the other hand, it is perfectly suited to proclaiming the emptiness and total despair that she feels from the point at which she introduces her son right through to the heart-wrenching finale.
David Butt Philip, making his ENO role debut as Pinkerton, occasionally struggles to be heard over the orchestra (superbly conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong), but when his voice has the chance to shine it combines a fullness of sound with a beautiful tone. As Sharpless, George von Bergen’s strong baritone is utilised to good effect, while Stephanie Windsor-Lewis provides an excellent all-round performance as Suzuki. From among the more minor characters, Samantha Price leaves her mark in the small role of Kate Pinkerton and Matthew Durkan executes Prince Yamadori’s scene very well, entering proud and haughty but leaving heart broken. In between, there is a split second in which he stares into Cio-Cio-San’s eyes that makes us feel that this whole affair might turn out very differently, but alas this moment of potential ‘reprieve’ proves to be over just as soon as it has begun.