Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly at ENO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Puccini, Madam Butterfly: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera, conducted by Oleg Caetani. The London Coliseum, London, 8.5.2012. (JPr)

Mary Plazas and Gwyn Hughes Jones photo credit:ENO/Clive Barda

This was the second opera in a row with hints of paedophilia at the London Coliseum. Two stories involving a young girl being ‘bought’ by an older seafaring man, she is a dreamer wishing for an escape from life where she seems to needs to please others rather than herself, she suffers abuse and is despised by her peers and in the end – when life is obviously not going to have a happy ending from her – she stabs herself. Now unfortunately, the other opera this scenario fitted was English National Opera’s rather dispiriting new The Flying Dutchman.  But having proved it can no longer perform Wagner well – not that it really seems to want to schedule it anyway – ENO certainly knows how to do Puccini, and this Madam Butterfly was a wonderfully evocative revival of Anthony Minghella’s memorable, award-winning production.

The sight of Michael Levine’s black lacquered box-like set with its huge sloping mirror that shows what is happening ‘behind the scenes’ now has a cosy familiarity after a few revivals. The moveable wall panels making up Cio-Cio-San’s house, though overtly reminiscent of Graham Vick’s 1984 iconic ENO production, undercuts the opera’s most controversial moments with scenic counter-arguments. They have a multitude of uses including providing entrances for characters or stage furniture. Basically, we seem to be looking at a very large display case, peering in at the latest exotic exhibit. If the current wobbliness of the set is ignored, then this production – already seven years old – seems destined to become a classic and go on forever, joining the ranks of English National Opera’s longest running stagings.

This was Anthony Minghella’s only opera production and its one major weakness is the ending that for him seems to be only a metaphor for the mistakes of American imperialism. Minghella was attracted into making the production as ‘authentic’ as possible and so Cio-Cio-San becomes a victim of the exquisite rituals of Japanese culture, though she would never in reality kill herself the way she does.  Whenever I see Madam Butterfly I cannot forget how when it was revived at Covent Garden in 2007, those keeping an eye out for anything non-PC spoke out about its racial stereotypes. This is undoubtedly true but the stereotypes are not just racial;  what is more evident – especially in David Parry’s English translation that doesn’t improve with age – is how ironic Puccini was probably being about the greatness of the America (or ‘God’s America’ at one point) whilst advertising the dubious ‘pleasures’ of sex tourism. The acceptability of underage sex is made clear in Act I and one might have hoped by now that common sense would have prevailed and something like ‘Make love to me gently as if I were a baby’ would been revised in the translation. In addition to this there is rampant misogyny when Pinkerton sings ‘She babbles on like women everywhere you go’ and finally, ‘God damn that bastard Pinkerton’ gets a laugh from a certain section of the audience who were clearly uninvolved by the ensuing drama.

Hectares of silk fill the stage in almost every colour in the kimonos, obis, parasols and fans from costume designer Han Feng. Mary Plazas’ Cio-Cio-San says those crude ‘baby’ words and Gwyn Hughes Jones’s bulky Pinkerton is after his money’s worth but that’s all okay because down comes a pretty cherry blossom curtain and there is a ‘ballet’ involving 9 paper lanterns – and you realise its seems to no more than a romantic duet when in truth it is so very much more.

Before Sarah Tipple’s current revival I often felt everything looked very good without making the audience care enough about what they are being shown. Most of what this opera really needs is already in the score and the hints of Wagner in Act III seem deliberate as if to underline the drama. Throughout, Puccini shows a mastery of ceremonial moments and intimate ones, the joy of togetherness and the pain of desertion and this is something that Minghella – or Carolyn Chao’s earlier revivals – did not seems to address sufficiently for me and the production was often swamped by imposing the authentic Japanese imagery onto it. Here with the return of the two creators of the central roles of Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton, for me they made the personal tragedy of their characters real like never before in this Minghella Butterfly.

Ms Plazas’ size made it rather more realistic than usual that she could be 15 – ‘so very tiny’ as the translation says – vulnerable, infatuated, disillusioned and despairing by turns, hers was a performance of considerable accomplishment and the depth of her character’s vulnerability and despair was plain to see. She was perfectly matched by Gwyn Hughes Jones bulky Pinkerton. His descent from carefree sailor looking for cheap sex to a broken man unable to face the consequences of his thoughtless deeds was wonderfully realised, as was Cio-Cio-San initial guilelessness and eventual heartbreak at having to give up her son, Sorrow.

Mentioning Sorrow brings me to what I considered before was another weakness of the staging and Cio-Cio-San’s son appearing as a Bunraku puppet. ‘He’ is traditionally manipulated by three puppeteers (of the Blind Summit Theatre) in full view. The puppet still seems too small but was now perfectly in scale with Mary Plazas’ diminutive doomed heroine and the emotional interplay between a mother and her son was often genuinely touching.

Maybe it was where I was sitting but both Mary Plazas’ and Gwyn Hughes Jones’s voices seemed a shade too small for the London Coliseum and were swamped by a rampant orchestra at times. Ms Plazas’ soprano was suitably robust but revealed a touching, passionate, fragile side to it when required. Mr Hughes Jones’s performance was a vast improvement compared to when I heard him sing the role in 2008. For a British singer his sound has a remarkably Italianate style and his Pinkerton was suitably full of lust at first and then later riddled with remorse and he brings greater substance than is usual to this unsympathetic role.

There was plenty of emotion too in the pit from Oleg Caetani and the always reliable ENO orchestra. A number of years ago Maestro Caetani was due to become their music director and obviously cannot harbour any resentment at being replaced. Like Semyon Bychkov and his recent Covent Garden La bohème, Caetani’s tempi seemed rather indulgent with his soloists during their arias whilst rushing the ensembles a little. Nevertheless, his reading was rich in detail that verged on ‘symphonic’ at times and it had an overall potent dramatic arc. The clearly well-schooled chorus made the most of its Classic FM moments and the two principals were supported by an accomplished roster of stronger-than-usual singers in the more minor roles. Michael Colvin (Goro), Mark Richardson (Bonze) and Jonathan McGovern (Prince Yamadori) seemed to make more of their contributions than Puccini possibly had in mind for them. Similarly John Fanning’s rugged Sharpless was not much more than a cypher but the composer doesn’t even give him much to work with and he was often more sympathetic and less censorious than usual. Finally, Pamela Helen Stephen brought a certain nobility to Suzuki, the faithful maid, whilst never grabbling the spotlight from her mistress she gave a performance redolent of a touching sincerity.

Jim Pritchard

Madam Butterfly continues in repertory at the London Coliseum until 2nd June –for further details please see