To witness Anthony Minghella's Madam Butterfly is to witness the best visual theatrical production opera currently has to offer. I therefore welcome this revival at the London Coliseum with open arms.
Madam Butterfly is a story that has become well engrained in popular culture over the 100 years since it was first performed. Cio-Cio San, Madam Butterfly, is a young geisha girl who marries an American Naval officer, Pinkerton, whilst he is stationed in Japan. But whilst the marriage is just a fling for him, it is deep life-changing love for Madam Butterfly. So when her husband soon flits off back to America, Butterfly waits patiently for his return.
Though it is patently obvious to all around her that her love for Pinkerton is unrequited, Butterfly refuses to believe it. Until of course Pinkerton returns - with his American wife - and Butterfly's heart is crushed beyond all hope.
Even though it is now eight years since Anthony Minghella debuted his interpretation of Madam Butterfly, still no opera has matched its extraordinary theatrical achievement. It remains the benchmark.
This revival is beautifully directed by Sarah Tipple who honours all the original elements of Minghella's version and builds on them. The production begins with an elegant and graceful geisha fan dance, performed in silence. Its beauty and its faithful representation a bold marker for what follows.
The set design from Michael Levine is wonderful, as are the costumes designed by Han Feng. Dancing geishas, the blood-coloured rising sun, Japanese lanterns, binraku (Japanese puppet theatre), cherry blossom and fire flies... The production matches the 'East meets West' approach of Puccini's score and brings an intriguing and intoxicating exotic quality.
The title role was played by Dina Kuznetsova, who was making her ENO debut. A great actress as well as a terrific soprano, she brought real childlike naivety and tenderness to what can be a very one-dimensional character. She is a performer with a great stage presence and star quality.
Timothy Richards who played Pinkerton too had a great emotional depth to his voice but it did not have a lot of power. Occasionally he was drowned out by the orchestra, which was conducted by Gianluca Marciano, who was also making his ENO debut. Marciano certainly wrung all the drama out of Puccini's score but perhaps needed to give the singers on stage more opportunity to be heard.
The production is sung in English, which has raised some eyebrows. I appreciate that many would like opera to stay faithful to the language in which it was written (in this case, Italian) but given that I, for one, am incredibly keen for opera to find a broader, more diverse audience, I'm all for changing the language providing the translation fits the musical line.
Surtitles are still provided but I thought the translation worked well. At times dramatic and poignant, but also with moments of humour to keep the tone varied. A couple of lines in the libretto were a bit out but barely noticeable. I thought it was a brave decision that largely paid off.
Opera needs to take risks if it is going to compete in a packed entertainment market and so I applaud both the intention and the result.
For me the only downside was that it wasn't a real tear-jerker. Maybe it's because I am so familiar with the story or maybe it's because Butterfly is such a victim it's hard to feel empathise with her. Nevertheless Minghella's version of Madam Butterfly really does take your breath away. It remains well worthy of all the praise that has been lavished on it.
To December 1, 2013