With a film director of Anthony Minghella’s renown at the helm of ENO’s new Madam Butterfly, a production visually cinematic in scale was reasonably hoped for. Minghella’s films always feature music, some composed by the director himself, and notable visuals at their core, so his opera debut was highly anticipated. Would his considerable skills prove transferable to his new medium?
This co-production with Lithuanian National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera doesn’t visually disappoint. The scope of Michael Levine’s austere set is spectacular. Complete with Japanese sliding panels, the sloping black stage is roofed by a giant mirror, allowing us to see behind the scenes action and the expressions of the singers as they exit the stage. All of the set, even the safety curtain, gets used during the performance. Peter Mumford’s exquisite lighting makes the most of it.
Minghella’s wife Carolyn Choa was responsible for the scene from Eugene Onegin played out in her husband’s film The Talented Mr Ripley, and here again she puts dance at the centre of the action. The singers’ movements not only demonstrate aspects of the storyline but also showcase Chinese designer Han Feng’s ornately colourful riot of Oriental and Western costumery, particularly stunning during the wedding scene. With such variety of colours and patterns available for the eye to feast on, sets are almost superfluous.
Origami birds, paper fans, hand-held lanterns and strings of petals suspended from the ceiling add to the lush stylistic visuals of the production, while Japan’s Banraku puppetry tradition is introduced to give life to Butterfly’s child. Controlled by three fully visible puppeteers in black, the wooden puppet-child moves strangely around the stage for much of the first part of the second act, somewhat distracting attention from the work of the singers. It feels like a grafting of Japanese to European art – but if the intention was to underline Puccini’s tale of contrasting cultures, of East meets West, then this individual fusion of artistic styles has merit. However, at no point could disbelief be suspended – this clearly is not a real child.
Mary Plazas as Butterfly is as childlike as the role could want for, and she is suitably demure as the lovestruck heroine. Her tiny stature is no handicap to her stage presence, but in the vast Coliseum her voice all too often sinks below the orchestra’s music and the voices of her co-stars.
Christopher Purves as the American Consul Sharpless can be clearly heard throughout and gains the character sympathy for his predicament when he must tell Butterfly of Pinkerton’s desertion and marriage. Also providing solid support is Jean Rigby as Suzuki, a motherly figure fulsomely contrasting with Plazas’s tiny form. Like Plazas, Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton struggles to be heard over the orchestra but cuts a strident pose as a man with the world at his feet and all the riches he could desire.
David Parry, who with Minghella provides the English translation of Giacosa and Illica’s libretto, also conducts the ENO orchestra. But rarely does the music sweep the audience away with feeling.
At the denouement, when Butterfly commits ritual suicide with her father’s sword and swathes of red cloth spread out across the huge stage, the visuals are what captures the imagination rather than the emotion of the piece. Butterfly’s life, love and death impressed with its imaginative stylings, but it ultimately failed to move.