Puccini: Madam Butterfly

English National Opera

The Coliseum, London, 13 June 20093.5 stars

Madam ButterflyHaving picked up an Olivier Award and provoked something of a critical witch-hunt since its first outing in 2005, it seems safe to say that Anthony Minghella's Madam Butterfly has divided audiences. Returning once more to ENO by way of homage to its late director, the production is looking – and for the most part sounding – as glossily beautiful as ever, if still a little vacant behind the eyes.

The tale of the faithful Japanese Geisha who must 'forget family and friends' to devote herself to her American husband is simultaneously one of Puccini's starkest and most humane operas. Superficially a riot of Orientalist fantasy and exoticism, it reveals itself as simple and universal tale of devotion in the face of deception and cruelty. Many recent productions have thus opted to play down the work's exotic elements, allowing the drama of the score to speak for itself, and of Puccini's operas it is arguably that which responds best to a minimalist approach.

Minghella's production however famously bucks the trend, embracing the expansive and colourful gestures of Eastern theatre and applying them wholesale to proceedings. Throughout the opera the stage is a minutely choreographed kaleidoscope of shifting patterns, with dancers and colourful crowds creating shifting patterned tableaux of colour. Costumes are brightly and lavishly authentic, with Yamadori in particular sporting a splendidly excessive outfit that would not seem out of place in a Mardi Gras parade.

The production's other significant – and now notorious – nod to the East, is the use of a Japanese Bunraku puppet in the role of Butterfly's child Sorrow. Manipulated with breathtaking expertise by the traditional team of black-robed puppeteers, it gains extraordinary humanity and a range of nuanced emotion, yet somehow fails to move. That the innocent and all-too human product of deception and exploitation should be reduced to the self-conscious artifice of a symbol and puppet – its wizened and knowing face in place of that of a real child – is somehow to buy into the myth of the one-dimensional Butterfly with which Pinkerton consoles himself.

Madam ButterflyFor the most part however the production creates an intelligent and impressive visual spectacle. Avoiding the trap of so many first-time opera directors, Minghella demonstrates a real understanding of the highly specialised mechanics of the opera stage with its unnatural lack of depth, and his use of moving screens and gossamer curtains of blossom to create Butterfly's home lent real pathos to the fragility of her illusory home, her 'corner of America in Japan' as she assures the Consul.

Under Edward Gardner ENO's orchestra continue to gain in crispness and energy (not to mention a precision) that was sorely lacking hitherto. They were once again on form, relishing Puccini's score without either excess or vulgarity, and if the chorus were still a little ragged in the their interjections, one remembers their athletic accuracy in the recent Dr Atomic and holds out hope for the future.

Returning as Butterfly, Judith Howarth retained all her purity and clarity of tone, presenting a heroine driven by a comprehending adult devotion rather than the childlike naivety one sometimes sees. There were occasional lapses of intonation in the highest register, but these were more than compensated for by the dramatic conviction that she brought to the role. Providing dramatic support and lending her characteristically rich vocals to the part of Suzuki was Christine Rice, whose weary and anxious handmaiden contrasted nicely to the youthful energy of Howarth.

Among the new additions to the cast were two singers making their ENO debut – Bryan Hymel as Pinkerton and Brian Mulligan as Sharpless. Mulligan was a delight, presenting the difficult character of the consul with an avuncular detachment that eventually gave way to an appropriately restrained (and no less moving) display of sympathy. Vocally his mellow tones only grew in fullness as the evening progressed, and I look forward to seeing more of him in future seasons. Hymel by contrast proved himself to be very much the weakest link of the cast. Even allowing for the extraordinarily difficulty of the role of Pinkerton, he fell short, delivering a tone that was gripped and tended flat. His straining efforts were no match for the ease of Howarth, whose role in duets must have been made considerably harder by the difficulty of blending with his strangely swallowed sound.

Madam ButterflyA word must also be said of David Parry's libretto – a new English translation for this production. It seems amazing that despite the many opportunities offered for revisions in an opera revival that none have as yet been made here. Spoiled as we have been by Amanda Holden's lyrically vernacular translations at ENO, his text seemed both crass and lumpy, actively intruding into the flow of the vocal line on many occasions, with particular low points including the re-working of Butterfly's plea to Pinkerton as 'Make love to me gently', and Sharpless' expostulation of, 'Goddam that bastard Pinkerton!'.

As a tribute to the late Anthony Minghella this Butterfly is perhaps a little too apt, too honest, exposing not only the strengths but also the consistent weaknesses of Hollywood's favourite thinking-man's-director. Whether on screen or stage, spectacle has always been Minghella's focus and his trademark; his is the cinema of the wide-shot – the sweeping desert panorama of The English Patient, the riotous cityscape of Breaking and Entering, the monochrome winter vistas of Cold Mountain – and it's a trait he carries across to the opera stage. When painting his large and undeniably beautiful abstracts Minghella too often smoothes over the cracks and creases of specificity, of the individual, forgetting that it is in these fault-lines that both emotion and meaning take shape. Captivated like Pinkerton by the smoothly painted face of the Geisha, Minghella's Butterfly is all about the façade of beauty, while Puccini's is far more interested in the messy and inelegant human beings that lie beneath.

By Alexandra Coghlan

Photos: Tristram Kenton

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Judith HowarthRelated articles:

Interview: Judith Howarth discusses this production
Interview: Christine Rice
Review: The previous revival of Madam Butterfly at ENO
News: ENO announces 2009-10 season