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Puccini, Madam Butterfly: Soloists, chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera, David Parry (cond), Coliseum, 5.5.2006 (MB)

Janice Watson: Madam Butterfly
Gwyn Hughes Jones: Pinkerton
Jean Rigby: Suzuki
David Kempster: Sharpless
Alan Oke: Goro
Julian Tovey: Bonze
Toby Stafford-Allen: Yamadori
Stephanie Marshall: Kate Pinkerton

Blind Summit Theatre.

Anthony Minghella (director)
Carolyn Choa (choreographer)
Set designer: Michael Levine
Costume Designer: Han Feng
Lighting: Peter Mummford


The saying about never working with animals and children could be rewritten after seeing this production to “never work with animals, children… or puppets”. And this is one of the problems with Anthony Minghella’s direction of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly: the extensive juxtaposition of Bunraku with Italianate opera blurs the distinction between opera and theatre. Too often, and especially from the mid-way point of Act II, Part One, onwards (where Butterfly’s child is introduced to us), attention is diverted from the human tragedy of this opera, from the larger issues of sexual exploitation and the ambiguity of love, to a virtuoso display of theatrical puppetry.

In a lesser director's hands this might prove devastating; but Minghella forces us to look at a dysfunctional nuclear family from an entirely different perspective. And this change of perspective is, of course, what Puccini tried to achieve with Madam Butterfly. Although the structure of the opera itself might owe much to Verdi’s Otello, Puccini rewrites the aesthetics of turn-of-the century opera to reflect a less generic form; Madam Butterfly is radical enough to hint at a new literary modernism and it merges that with a neo-Impressionist visualism too.

Minghella was probably aware of this when he agreed to direct Madam Butterfly for this is the most visual opera staging I have seen. Everything about it is cinematic – the evocative use of lighting (from Japanese lanterns, to sedate stage lighting), the use of shoji screens to hide the drama, only for a mirror above the stage to allow us to peek ‘behind the scenes’, and the use of the ‘split screen’ formula which allows us to see simultaneous action. This works best at the opening to Act II, Part Two, when Cio-Cio-San’s alter ego, pursued by a flock of paper birds, dances in a dreamy scene; the unfurling of her Obi kimono sash predicts the horror of her death, although her immolation itself is absolutely breathtaking: a stream of crimson unravelling in the mirror was like blood spreading through clear water.


The singers make the most of the minimalist staging: movement is strictly controlled, adding to the occasional sense of stasis one felt with Minghella’s direction (something which can overwhelm his films). The constant presence of the Bunraku puppeteers, although distracting at first, became less so as the opera drew to its close, which is rightly a moment of high drama and was exactly that.

Ominously, before the opera began a stage announcement was made that Gwyn Hughes Jones (Pinkerton), David Kempster (Sharpless) and Janice Watson (Cio-Cio-San) were all suffering from colds… but had, nevertheless, agreed to sing their parts. If a near-complete wipe-out of three of the four leading roles had been avoided, it did not necessarily bode well for the artistic performances we might get. In the event, their illnesses made little impact on the quality of the singing.

Janice Watson, making her title role debut, sang with a steely security beneath her tonally rich soprano. Of an altogether different stature to the original Butterfly in this production (Mary Plazas), Ms Watson brought Straussian power to her singing (she is a natural Salome); if I prefer the more Italianate voice of Mirella Freni in this role, Ms Watson proved more than up to the demands of Butterfly’s inner turmoil and the extreme boundaries of emotion Puccini wrings from his singer. In the love duet, for example, she skilfully played against the sexually charged singing of Gwyn Hughes Jones’ Pinkerton allowing herself to fold effortlessly into the cathartic ambience which sanctifies the end of the love duet. Ms Watson’s greatest moment, however, is her final aria, ‘Con onor muore chi non può serbar vita con onore’, where the voice is allowed a freedom of range that was exhilarating: her cries of ‘Addio, piccolo amor! Va gioca, gioca’ were gut-wrenching.

David Kempster’s Sharpless is a complex creation, working his way from mere emissary to one who feels genuine compassion for Butterfly’s plight. He, Gwyn Hughes Jones’ Pinkerton and Jean Rigby’s Suzuki made their Trio a sublime moment where the voices melded together with the kind of languid phrasing Puccini surely wanted. Hughes Jones, too, made the most of the sometimes unforgiving role of the American naval officer (was I alone in hearing some boos?) but he managed, despite being less than vocally fit, to get the notes, a high B flat at ‘vera sposa americana’ included, in place. Of the smaller roles, Toby Stafford-Allen as Yamadori and Alan Oke as Goro were impressive.

David Parry assumes two roles for this Butterfly: conductor and translator. In neither is he really successful. The translation doesn’t always make the singers’ job an easy one, with his reliance on a consonant driven (some might say literal) translation making the performance sound less lyrical than it should do. This is sometimes a criticism that can be levelled at his conducting: at crucial moments he is so slow as to make the music seem close to breaking its line, at others he rushes headlong into the score so that detail is swamped (and the timpani at Butterfly’s ‘Va, va, te lo commando’ were shockingly ill-balanced). The orchestra, however, play Puccini’s score masterfully.

Ultimately, however, you come to the end of this Butterfly with distinctly confused responses. When the tears stream down your face at the sight of a Japanese puppet running with an American flag in his hand towards his mother, to be blindfolded as she commits suicide, you wonder whether what you have seen is opera at its best or a lesson in audience manipulation. Minghella’s Butterfly is a thing of rare, almost unique, beauty; but I am undecided as to whether it is Puccini’s Butterfly.

Marc Bridle


Anne Ozorio reviewed this production with Mary Plazas as Butterfly in November 2005 Here.



English National Opera's production of Madam Butterfly is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera (New York) and Lithuanian National Opera. It opens the 2006/2007 at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on 25 September, conducted by James Levine. ENO’s Butterfly continues on 10, 12, 16, 25, 27 and 31 May 2006.

Photographs © English National Opera.





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