Madam Butterfly

Reviewer's Rating

This production of Madam Butterfly, created by film maker Anthony Minghella, was first seen at English National Opera in 2005. It is visually stunning with its brightly lit screens, sliding spotlights, colourful costumes and its puppets – and, when it was first seen, the design seemed to enhance the music and underline Puccini’s story of unrequited love and male callousness. If there is a problem, it is that the production design now seems almost to overawe the singers and distract the audience. Where it should be helping to focus and intensify the drama, it now seems to provide visual treats for their own sake. It takes spectacular singing to grab the audience’s attention back to where it should be – on the tragedy, and the ravishing music that Puccini composed.

Cio-Cio San is a 15 year old girl from a Japanese family that has fallen on hard times. A marriage broker arranges her union with Pinkerton, an American naval officer in Nagasaki for a season. He is looking for a temporary mistress in the girl he calls Madam Butterfly – she thinks the marriage is for real. She cuts her ties with her family and community and declares herself to be American. They marry in a cursory ceremony in a beautiful hill-top house Pinkerton has rented for 999 years and in which he installs Butterfly. He departs promising to return but stays away for three years. When he does finally return, all Butterfly’s illusions are shattered and a decision about the fate of the son she has born him leads to the final tragedy.

This story of the destruction of beauty and innocence by male brutality and American imperialism is told by Puccini in music of devastating emotional power, and the role of Butterfly is the focus of the opera. ENO is very fortunate to have persuaded Natalya Romaniw to take on the role for the first time. She is very much a rising star – a soprano with a fine and powerful voice and the acting skills to lead the audience through with her from naïve bride to broken woman. On press night she sounded a bit tentative in the first act – first night nerves, I guess – but by act 3 the voice was secure and soaring and the dignity of her final moments was emotionally overwhelming. As her Pinkerton, American tenor Dimitri Pittas was certainly arrogant and uncaring in manner but his voice is one that will not suit all tastes – even in the enormous Coliseum auditorium he sounded loud and occasionally seemed to sacrifice accuracy of tone for volume. This was particularly evident when singing alongside the Sharpless of Roderick Williams whose delightful baritone voice and consummate acting skills show that musicality and subtlety can be the ideal way to tell even a melodramatic story like Butterfly. Stephanie Windsor-Lewis was a fine Suzuki, though she too seemed at her best in act 3 as the tragedy unfolds. Martyn Brabbins as conductor was more than able to conjure some fine Italianate orchestral sounds from the ENO orchestra, though the balance between strings and wind was occasionally disconcerting.

The visual feast is spectacular, despite my reservations. Apart from the marvellous colours, there is the superb puppetry – where else do you see a puppet take a curtain call to loud cheers from the audience? There is also a team of sinister black clad figures who provide both stage effects and scene shifts in ways that enhance the action very significantly, though the birds on long poles were one effect too many for me. This was a performance that almost reached the heights but had one or two weak links that need attention. Even so the power of Romaniw’s final act performance and the image of the young woman in white framed against a blazing red background and singing of the heartbreak of a mother losing her child lives in the memory.