Anthony Minghella's famous production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly debuted with ENO in 2005, and has been revived several times since at the Coliseum, as well as travelling to the Met in New York and the Lithuanian National Opera. ENO's latest revival confirms the classic status of this version, with a musical account which goes some way to matching the sumptuous and – yes – cinematic visuals.
The emphasis on visual richness is clear throughout. A pristine, shimmering floor reflects the actors, always colourfully dressed, lending sparkling depth to the shapes they form. The inevitable sliding doors (mentioned in the libretto) are treated elegantly, with careful silhouettes behind them. And most strikingly, a whole team of spectral puppeteers, dressed in black, manipulate the set and indeed some of the characters: Butterfly's three-year-old son is a puppet dressed in a sailor's uniform, controlled with amazing precision by a team of three. At Butterfly's death, two of the spectres run on stage and pull red ribbons from her waist, creating a beautiful, horrifying river of blood. This is a thrilling spectacle with few rivals for richness in opera.
The production's use of puppeteers is a recollection of Japanese puppet theatre and just one of the many elements of the staging to pay sincere tribute to traditional Japanese culture, or at least a Westernised image of this culture. The chorus of geishas are dressed in a rainbow of vibrant colours; there is a rising sun, as well as innumerable paper lanterns and fans; the Japanese men Goro and Yamadori have elaborate and bizarre headgear that I assume is meant to be traditional to some extent. This was all incredible to watch, but did become slightly predictable, and by the time the origami cranes emerged, I was beginning to wonder if they were going to fit Tamagotchis and Manga comics in too.
In other words, it isn't the subtlest of productions: the bold colours of blockbuster films are discernible in the directorial approach. If you didn't think Puccini's persistent quoting of the Star-Spangled Banner was on-the-nose enough, try handing Butterfly's son a US flag to wave while his mother kills herself. There's also something faintly odd about aiming for sincerity in the oriental aspects of this fundamentally very Italian work, so from a cultural perspective, I wasn't left completely convinced by this staging, however much I loved watching it.
But on the other hand, there is something of the opulence of Hollywood in Puccini's huge, impassioned score, and the music connected well with its staging. The lead couple, Mary Plazas as Butterfly and Gwyn Hughes Jones as her wandering husband Pinkerton, were a delight all evening. Plazas played her opening scene beautifully: prior to her arrival, Butterfly is built up so extremely in the audience's expectations that her eventual appearance can be a slight let-down, but Plazas' vocal account caught an element of mystery and I found myself as enraptured as the gormless men on stage. Jones had all the strength and stridency needed for his role and I even believed his sudden flush of guilt in the closing stages, as he realises what he has done to his abandoned, faithful wife. The couple's Act I duet was enchanting, as they moved among the gorgeous abstract set of paper moons.
They received excellent support as well, especially from the fantastic Pamela Helen Stephen as Butterfly's maid Suzuki, with John Fanning a steady Sharpless. The orchestra sounded strong, with the brass especially effective, under the baton of longtime ENO associate Oleg Caetani. That said, the whole of the first act seemed a touch too fast, and some moments of delicacy were skipped over almost perfunctorily – but things calmed down noticeably after the interval, and the soft orchestral colouring of the Humming Chorus was a triumph. Both offstage singing moments – the Bonze's angry cries in the first act, and Pinkerton's hopeless 'Butterfly!' at the end – were disappointingly quiet, but overall this was a strong musical performance, absolutely worthy of the staging.
Reviving this production is certainly more than justified, as for anyone who loves spectacle in opera, this remains a complete must-see. There isn't a moment which isn't engrossing to watch, and the puppeteers are magnificent. While this bold, primary-colour interpretation may leave little room for the subtlety of the piece, its thrilling brilliance redeems it. And with a great musical performance as well, this really is vital viewing.
With its breathtaking mix of cinematic images and traditional Japanese theatre, its riot of colourful costumes, stunning sets and unforgettable use of puppetry, Minghella’s only opera production brilliantly delivers what The Independent called ‘the simplest and the most sumptuous thing we’ve ever seen in this theatre’.
Mary Plazas, who played the title-role in Minghella’s original production, makes a triumphant return as the teenage geisha girl seduced by a Yankee sailor.
London ColiseumSt. Martin's Lane
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2N 4ES
Mary Plazas as Butterfly and Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki © Clive Barda
Madam Butterfly © Clive Barda