Sensuality and Beauty in ENO’s Madama Butterfly

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini Madama Butterfly (sung in English): Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera/Gianluca Marciano. London Coliseum, 15.10.2013 (CC)


Cio Cio San (Madam Butterfly),        Dina Kuznetsova
Suzuki,                                        Pamela Helen Stephen
F. B. Pinkerton,                            Timothy Richards
Sharpless,                                   George von Bergen
Goro,                                          Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Prince Yamadori,                          Alexander Robin Baker
The Bonze,                                 Mark Richardson
Yakuside,                                     Philip Daggett
Imperial Commissioner,                   Paul Napier-Burrows
Official Registrar,                          Roger Begley
Cio-Cio San’s mother,           Natalie Herman
Aunt,                                          Judith Douglas
Cousin,                                       Morag Boyle
Kate Pinkerton,                             Catherine Young



Original Director,                           Anthony Minghella
Revival Director,                          Sarah Tipple
Set Designer,                               Michael Levine
Lighting Designer,                          Peter Mumford
Costume Designer,                        Hang Feng

This production by Anthony Minghella (his only one), seen here under revival director Sarah Tipple, is massively popular down St Martin’s Lane; it pretty much guarantees sold-out houses. The sensual element certainly draws one in, and Japan’s reputation as an example of all things beautiful is high on the agenda. Costumes (Hang Feng) are magnificently, impeccably rendered. Cherry blossom petals fall from on high magically. Lighting is a dream in this netherland, this “other world” that sits in diametric opposition to the hard realities of America. Space is used with great effect, reflective surfaces expanding and enhancing the scope. Mimes that preface action draw the audience in to the production’s world effectively. The use of puppetry (Blind Summit Theatre: think back to A Dog’s Heart in November 2010) for the child in act III is intriguing and of course there is the Japanese puppet tradition of bunraku, but I doubt whether the puppet-child will impress on repeated viewings. It is hard to be touched by a doll, no matter how well manipulated. Minghella’s concept seems to be a distillation of the atmosphere of a country, which at least is easy to swallow as well as to watch.  (Contrast, for example, the Torre del Lago production conducted by Domingo on a Dynamic DVD that has the main characters dressed as various insects on the basis that Cio Cio San is a “butterfly”!)

The conductor was Gianluca Marcianò, currently Musical Director and Principal Conductor of the Tblisi State Opera and Ballet Theatre, Georgia and here making his ENO debut. Despite some decidedly harsh, un-Puccinian string playing early on, it became clear the players liked him and solo contributions from the woodwind throughout were given with great character. His view on Puccini is clearly not to linger, something which enables one to feel the dramatic arches. He just stays the right side of breathless, and, perhaps most importantly, his ear for Puccini’s lines and counterpoint is highly developed. The core of his conducting is a sense of flow, something which enabled us to appreciate all the more Puccini’s impeccable grasp of theatre.

The cast was variable. The title role, Cio Cio San, is shared in this run between Dina Kuznetsova (on this occasion) and Mary Plazas. Plazas is a superb singer and actress, as her Violetta has proved,  plus her physical frame seems perfect for the young girl at the heart of this story (as would seem to be confirmed by Jim Pritchard’s review of this production in May 2012). In contrast, there is no way anyone could pretend Kuznetsovas was the fifteen years specified in the drama. Still, she is capable of great delicacy (as her “Un bel dì vedremo” demonstrated), and she has a lovely voice that she uses to great effect in her moulding of Puccini’s phrases.  (I have only experienced her briefly before, in a Met simulcast of Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini). But the Pinkerton, Timothy Richards (according to the ENO press information’s triumph of hyperbole, “one of the leading tenors of his generation”), just did not have the voice, the power or the charisma to convince. Often just on the verge of being submerged by the orchestra, it was immediately clear that this imbalance was the shortcoming of the singer, not any sort of over-enthusiasm of the conductor; the natural casualty of this is the fervency of the projected emotions so vital to Puccini (act I’s “Dovunque al mondo” being a case in point). Where Kuznetsova could act, Richards just got through. Which is more than could be said for George von Bergen’s cardboard cut-out Sharpless, the United States Consul at Nagasaki. The voice lacked body and conviction, was frequently fluttery and when not singing he simply looked as if he would rather be somewhere – anywhere – else, such was the level of his awkwardness.

It was excellent to see Pamela Helen Stephen on stage as Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki. Stephen’s experience showed in her presence, her sheer believability, and her grasp of each and every phrase and its place in the dramatic whole. Musically, she was the sonic equivalent of lighting up the stage every time she was on. The other female star of the evening was Catherine Young, whose brief appearance as Kate Pinkerton revealed her to be commanding of voice as well as stage presence. Alexander Robin Baker’s Prince Yamadori tended towards caricature, while Mark Richardson’s Bonze needed more vocal authority. Alun Rhys Jenkins’ Goro was throroughly characterful.

At least with an English cast one does not hear “America forever” in an Italian accent, which is one of the few advantages of hearing Butterfly in translation. The ENO Chorus was its usual excellent self, delivering a faultless Humming Chorus. This is in many ways a wonderful evening. With consistent casting it could be truly wonderful.

Colin Clarke