Madam Butterfly

English National Opera

The Coliseum, London, 1 February 2008 3.5 stars

Judith Howarth in Madam Butterfly at ENO: MusicalCriticism.com opera reviewIt's only a couple of years old, but Anthony Minghella's production of Madam Butterfly is already on its second revival at English National Opera, where it opens the Sky Arts 2008 season in stylish form.

The production remains extremely handsome and atmospheric. Minghella looks to the theatrical traditions of the East for inspiration and comes up with numerous gorgeous tableaux, most noticeably the nocturnal close to the first act, featuring curtains of cherry blossom and gently glowing balloon lanterns as the ideal erotic backdrop to Butterfly and Pinkerton's ravishing love duet. Mimed scenes bookend the opera, with the huge swathes of red fabric being unravelled from Butterfly's dying body at the end a particularly effective piece of imagery to end the show.

However, whilst the production is strong on atmosphere (not least thanks to Michael Levine's sets and Peter Mumford's lighting), it's extremely weak on drama. There's little sense of place, partly because the traditional sliding panels of the house do not define spaces clearly and deprive us of a sense of Butterfly's claustrophobia when abandoned; a mirror suspended diagonally above the stage occasionally gives us useful insights and reflections, but it tends to distract from the action. I found the use of a puppet in place of a live child to play Sorrow, Butterfly's son, somewhat grotesque: if you get a talented actor in this part it can properly function as the final motivation for Butterfly's suicide, but using a puppet erodes all the sensation of intimacy from the scenes between mother and son. Many of the kimonos are ugly rather than beautiful, whilst there's just not enough prominence given to such key moments as Butterfly's narrative in Act I about the possessions she wishes to take with her as a married woman, including her symbolic handling of the sacred knife with which her father killed himself on the request of the emperor and which will become her own means of suicide.

Judith Howarth and Gwyn Hughes Jones in Madam Butterfly at ENO: MusicalCriticism.com opera reviewThese and other key moments go unnoticed and the general effect is rather vacuous: although attractive, the production does little to probe the text. Puccini's drama is taut and violent: this is not an opera that demands such elaborate japonaiserie but rather requires that the pathos of the lead character be the focus of everything that happens onstage. In this revival, while certain performers are excellent, there is a general absence of psychological or emotional motivation for most of the characters' actions, and in particular the attraction between the lovers is barely set up. There's much to be dazzled by – and Butterfly's dramatic curtain call, emerging from the very back of the raked stage in a blood-red light, is astoundingly powerful – but one never sheds bitter tears for the heroine.

That said, Judith Howarth did her utmost to move us from start to last and seemed both vocally and physically untiring in the title role. In her interview with me earlier this month (which can be read here), Howarth mentioned her preference to interpolate the high D flat in her entrance scene; unfortunately it didn't quite come off at this performance, and there were occasional intonation problems in several scenes, probably because this is quite heavy spinto repertoire for her. But she did it full justice with the resources at hand: her beautiful tone and elegant lengthy phrasing combined with a strong desire to send the text beyond the footlights and up to the audience sitting in the gods. The second act in particular was a tour de force in which she fully portrayed Butterfly's unflinching love for Pinkerton, raising the dramatic temperature sevenfold in the process.

Judith Howarth and Gwyn Hughes Jones in Madam Butterfly at ENO: MusicalCriticism.com opera reviewSadly, Gwyn Hughes Jones was something of a disappointment as Pinkerton. Although he's in possession of a glorious natural Welsh tenor voice, his acting skills seemed extremely limited at this performance and there was no attempt to get into character. Although it's difficult to make roguish Pinkerton into a sympathetic or even a three-dimensional person, it shouldn't be difficult to depict the way in which he captivates Butterfly's heart, but here even that wasn't achieved. Nevertheless, there were many vocal pleasures, especially towards the end of the first act when the singer had warmed up.

Ashley Holland was a sympathetic and suitably lyrical Sharpless, if a little timid, while Karen Cargill's Suzuki was vocally and dramatically distinctive. With an uncomfortable stage presence and no tone, Christopher Gillett's Goro was the weak link, while Paul Whelan's Bonze and William Berger's Yamadori were more than passable if nothing special. Madaleine Shaw sang beautifully as Kate Pinkerton, but because she hasn't been directed with enough detail, I've rarely felt less moved by her pivotal role in the plot.

Without quite matching the two or three best performances I've heard of this piece, David Parry's conducting was one of the strongest aspects of the evening. Such a heavily orchestrated opera is a recipe for vocal disaster, but Parry only allowed the players to unleash their full energy occasionally so that the voices were only slightly drowned out at the very biggest climaxes. I loved his pacing of the score: structural silences worked their full effect, while his fluidity and flexibility allowed tasteful but not excessive rubato in the lyric moments. Perhaps the more savage aspects of the piece could have been emphasised more – clashes and crashes in the percussion and crushing brass chords did not always have their full effect – but on the whole, this was a musically well-rehearsed revival. Yet if Minghella's production, as revived by his wife Carolyn Choa, is a theatrical feast, it does not totally deliver the goods in terms of the libretto.

By Dominic McHugh

Read our interview with soprano Judith Howarth on this production here.

Photos: Alastair Muir and ENO