To describe this revival of Puccini's much-loved Madam Butterfly as a visual spectacle would be to do it a disservice. Originally directed by Anthony Minghella in its first outing in 2005, it is one of ENO's greatest success stories, having enjoyed a number revivals before this one at ENO – including one just last year – and further afield at the Met in New York. The design aspects of this production are indeed outstanding, and whilst the singing this time round is something of a mixed bag, the musical contribution is rich and vibrant.
The libretto, with its gut-wrenchingly tragic ending, and Puccini's ravishing, oriental-inspired score tug at the heartstrings, but any number of operas can claim to do that. What makes this production such a success is the attention to detail; it is clearly a well-researched production. The influence of Japanese aesthetic principles such as Ma – empty space – can be seen in Michael Levine's simple, glossy black curved floor and matching suspended ceiling, which serve to show off Peter Mumford's dramatically colourful lighting and Han Feng's astonishingly intricate costumes to full effect. The costumes themselves seemed at once timeless and as though they could have come from the catwalks of the recent Fashion Weeks – acid-bright embroidery mingled with the classic forms of the kimono, sokutai, and other traditional costumes. Metallic fans and silken ribbons are not only used as accessories, but as part of the theatricality of the production, the long ribbons wrapped round and tied to Madam Butterfly ultimately creating perversely beautiful streams of blood flowing from her body.
There are so many details in this production that draw the audience into the cultural life of Madam Butterfly's country, but perhaps one of the most exciting is the use of bunraku puppets for some of the characters. These are not-quite-life-sized puppets, aided by three black-clad puppeteers, with an unnerving life-like quality to their form. Butterfly and F.B. Pinkerton's young son is one of the puppets, and his cleverly controlled head, hand, and leg movements give him the childish innocence and sense of wonder that speak volumes in this particular story.
These production aspects are what makes ENO's Butterfly a must-see. Gianluca Marciano, too, creates an almighty force of an orchestra that draws out perfectly the emotion in Puccini's score. The singers are very good, though serious differences in their vocal power cause the prominence of the characters to be skewed. Dina Kuznetsova sparkles in the lead role and captures moments of tendresse and fury equally brilliantly, her bodily movements never betraying her delicateness. Pamela Helen Stephen's Suzuki is excellently matched; a strong and captiviating mezzo, but one who never outsings her mistress. Meanwhile, Timothy Richards cuts a quieter, and at times tired-sounding, F.B. Pinkerton, which, paired with the velvety bass of George von Bergen's Sharpless, gives his character a lesser prominence than the role might deserve. Goro, here sung by Alan Rhys-Jenkins, is as slimy as you like, and, for all the brevity of his time on stage, makes a lasting impression. Catherine Young's Kate Pinkerton is delightful; the suspense as she waited (and waited) in silence on stage was well worth it.
The imbalance between the singers is by no means a reason not to go; it is a fascinating production on so many levels. It would be interesting to see how Gwyn Hughes Jones gets on when he takes the role of F.B. Pinkerton next month, but going to any of the performances will surely not disappoint.