ENO’s Enjoyable Madama Butterfly Poses a Few Problems

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus (chorus master: James Henshaw) of the English National Opera / Richard Armstrong (conductor), Coliseum, London, 16.5.2016. (MB)

ENO’s Madam Butterfly with Rena Harms (Butterfly) and Stephanie Windsor-Lewis (Suzuki)
(c) Tom Bowles

(sung in English, as Madam Butterfly)

Cio-Cio San – Rena Harms
Suzuki – Stephanie Windsor-Lewis
Kate Pinkerton – Samantha Price
Pinkerton – David Butt Philip
Sharpless – George van Bergen
Goro – Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Prince Yamadori – Matthew Durkan
The Bonze – Mark Richardson
Yakuside – Philip Daggett
Imperial Commissioner – Paul Napier-Burrows
Official Registrar – Roger Begley
Mother –Natalie Herman
Cousin – Morag Boyle
Aunt – Judith Douglas
Sorrow – Laura Caldow, Tom Espiner, Irena Stratieva

Anthony Minghella (director)
Carolyn Choa (associate director, choreography, revived by Anita Griffin)
Sarah Tipple (revival director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Han Feng (costumes)
Peter Mumford (lighting, revived by Ian Jackson-French)
Blind Summit Theatre: Mark Down, Nick Barnes (puppetry)

This was my second viewing of the late Anthony Minghella’s much-revived production of Madam Butterfly. As on the first occasion, Sarah Tipple was the excellent (insofar as I could tell) revival director. I cannot claim knowledge of bunraku (Japanese puppet-theatre) beyond the little I have read, but the contribution of Blind Summit Theatre seemed to me as impressive as before, both in itself and with respect to the intriguing interaction between the realism of the work and the æsthetic artificiality of the puppetry. Arnold Toynbee, quoted in the programme, wrote of an Osaka puppet show in 1929: ‘I duly found, as I had been assured beforehand I should find, it possible to entertain the illusion that the puppets were animated by an autonomous life of their own, although the human artists manipulating them were in full view of the spectators.’ So did I, on this occasion. ‘An artistic effect which, in the West,’ Toynbee went on, ‘would have been produced by the artifice of keeping the manipulators out of sight, was produced in Japan by their artistry in keeping themselves out of mind notwithstanding their visibility.’ Again, such was my experience, likewise with Toynbee’s claim that the puppeteers succeeded ‘in subjectively effacing their objectively visible living human forms’.

The greatest problem of all with the work remains, though. Is its Orientalism more or less offensive than that of Turandot? Probably less, but more to the point, it is different.  Minghella’s production – and here, that is even more than usual, a shorthand, for the designs and choreography, as well as the puppetry, are surely just as important – offers, as I wrote last time, ‘a convincing blend of abstraction, stylisation, and moments through which more conventional, if highly disturbing, emotion, may flow like blood – or like the scarlet, silken banners unfurled by actors and dancers’. The brazen, colourful Orientalism of Hang Feng’s costumes might fool some, but surely not many; it accuses us, ensures that we acknowledge our complicity. Its relationship toward the relative abstraction of Michael Levine’s set designs is interesting; both aspects interrogate the other in a far more dialectical production than lazy glancing at production stills – or lazy slouching in the comfort of one’s seat – might suggest.

More problematical, I think, is the work’s objectification of its heroine. Clearly we are not supposed to sympathise with Turandot, or Turandot (even if we are cynically manipulated to sympathise with Liù, and then revolted by her treatment – both onstage and by Puccini). Equally clearly, we are supposed to sympathise with Cio-Cio San. Yet her objectification as a young, a very young, Japanese woman (or should we say girl?) is at best problematical. My inclination would be to bring the element of imperialistic sex tourism to the fore, but there are other routes, and that taken by Minghella is fruitful, not least in its apparent disinclination to take sides. Indeed, in that respect one might say he is acting more strongly against Puccini than a simple indictment would. Similarly, nightfall and moonlight – or rather, star light – at the end of the first act perform, or at least may be understood to perform, a similar role: drawing us in to Puccini’s manipulations but, at the same time, so clearly a construction of beauty – puppets an element, but only one such element, of that – that we are enabled, I should say encouraged, to interrogate those manipulations. More Straussian than Strauss? Perhaps; at any rate, the effect was not entirely dissimilar.

If one can progress beyond those problems, or at least prevent them from overwhelming everything else, the composer’s magic might work all too well. Here, it did not, but for rather the wrong reason. Rena Harms’s anonymous, small-voiced Cio-Cio San rarely convinced. Diction was a problem – so, of course, was the use of English in the first place, but let us leave that on one side. But there were difficulties too with stage presence and indeed with a convincing assumption on the terms of this particular staging. Too often, the voice sounded stretched, or worse. The orchestra and indeed other characters can supply some of what is missing, but they cannot – and could not – supply it all. Richard Armstrong’s conducting, moreover, whilst admirable in its lack of sentimentality, arguably went too far in the opposite direction. Too often, the orchestra sounded merely cold and brash; what we heard was neither ‘Romantic’ nor modernistic. That said, kinship with Götterdämmerung at the beginning of the third act registered more strongly than I recall. Orchestrally, this was a performance that improved significantly over the evening; maybe it will over the (lengthy) run too.

Elsewhere on stage there was much to enjoy. David Butt Philip’s Pinkerton was ambiguous. He seemed trapped by circumstance, by a degree of genuine enthusiasm for his tragic ‘project’. This was a rabbit trapped in the headlights, even if the headlights were of his own – as well as imperialism’s – making. Words and vocal line, moreover, were so clear that one could have taken dictation. George van Bergen’s Sharpless was also a fine musico-dramatic portrayal; again, the conflicts within the character were intelligently, even movingly, represented to us. Stephanie Windsor Lewis’s Suzuki was sympathetic throughout, especially during the third act. Most of the ‘smaller’ roles, not least the wheedling Goro of Alun Rhys-Jenkins, were cast from strength too, which makes it all the more surprising that such an error was made in the casting of so thin-voiced a Butterfly. Not for the first time – and I do not mean this in a nationalistic sense – one was left wondering why an American singer had been miscast by ENO, when there would surely have been many English, or other, singers well capable of taking on the role.

Mark Berry



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