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Madam Butterfly

by on 27 February 2020

‘As if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen’

Madam Butterfly

by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after Bellasca

English National Opera, Metropolitan Opera and Lithuanian National Opera, the Coliseum, until 17th April

A review by Matthew Grierson

Madam Butterfly opens in silence: from the cinematic space at the rear of the stage, the silhouette of Cio-Cio San appears and moves down the ramp towards the audience, fluttering fans and trailing cloths in a way that suggests the insect from which she takes her name. It’s a striking image, presumably conceived by the original director Anthony Minghella, and prepares one for a production in which visual spectacle will predominate.

MADAM BUTTERFLY, ENO, London Coliseum, London, Britain - 24 Feb 2020

At its best, this emphasis is a perfect complement to mood and action. Near the end of Act I, Pinkerton and Butterfly are alone together and the lights pick them out, both in their white outfits against the dark, with moon-shaped paper lanterns gradually closing in on them. It’s a tender moment that concentrates our attention on the lead and her lover, and one can almost believe, as she does, that he will love her forever. But the image also speaks to their isolation, given her ostracism from family and society in Nagasaki, and his distance from home – and the life he will live without her.

MADAM BUTTERFLY, ENO, London Coliseum, London, Britain - 24 Feb 2020

There is an echo of this scene after the second interval: whether it is Butterfly’s dream or that of her maid, Suzuki, a marionette of Cio-Cio San is married to an Asian dancer in the guise of Pinkerton, and they perform a ballet that parodies the relationship between the two lovers to that point. The motif of puppetry is an important one to this production, what with its mini mannequin son, origami birds and even servants playing puppets, and suggests we need to be conscious of who’s pulling the strings even as the stagecraft contrives to hide them.

The production treads lightly at first, conscious it is walking on thin ice with a tragic depth beneath. The marriage scene is rueful, almost playful, although with Sharpless’ enquiry about whether the 15-year-old Butterfly has a sister we are never far from the sordid realities of the trans-Pacific relationship. The mannered quality is clear in the contrast between Butterfly’s white bridal gown – matching her husband’s uniform – and the vibrant colour blocks of her entourage, there first to witness the nuptials with a jaunty good humour, and subsequently drawn into denouncing it by her uncle, the Bonze.

MADAM BUTTERFLY, ENO, London Coliseum, London, Britain - 24 Feb 2020

As the tragic Butterfly, Natalya Romaniw is remarkable, her performance tender and mischievous in her flirtatious early encounters with Pinkerton, deepening as they become closer throughout the first act. In each of her arias, Romaniw sings affectingly, raising the hairs on one’s neck. Through the middle of Act II she awaits the return of her husband with a fragile faithfulness, ultimately broken when he arrives with his American wife in tow. Romaniw completely sells these transitions, with the precision of her singing giving way to the rawness of her screams, and this allows her sudden suicide the weight it might otherwise lack.

Support comes from Stephanie Windsor-Lewis as Cio-Cio San’s reliable maid, Suzuki, a wry presence who is later realistic enough to see that her mistress has been betrayed. Butterfly also gets a good hearing from US consul Sharpless, who in Roderick Williams’ performance is endearingly awkward, and one still senses that, some diplomatic faux pas aside, he wants to do right by her.

MADAM BUTTERFLY, ENO, London Coliseum, London, Britain - 24 Feb 2020

The difficult task of making one sympathise with Pinkerton – a failed Romeo who does not match his lover’s suicide – falls to Dimitri Pittas. Despite whipping up some good-natured booing from the audience at his curtain call, Pittas is successfully engaging over the preceding three hours, his Lieutenant blithe and careless, at least at first. Indeed, his intimidation by Cio-Cio San’s assembled family, and the way his libido bursts into expression through song, make him almost as adolescent as his bride. So absorbed he has been in his own desire that he doesn’t seem to realise that his wife, young as she is, is a person in her own right, and not his puppet.

There is, then, a gentle, surprised humour in the way he responds to the dolls that she produces of her ancestors, and  this has two ramifications in the production. First of all, within moments we learn that his full name is Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and that he is a lieutenant about the USS Abraham Lincoln, both of which are celebrations of his own ancestors through American cultural swagger. Yet, second, their son, is a descendant brought to life as a puppet himself, manipulated by black-clad, ninja-like stagehands. The craft they use is simple and manages to be very touching, each turn of the head or gesture of the hand speaking of the child’s awestruck attention to the world.

MADAM BUTTERFLY, ENO, London Coliseum, London, Britain - 24 Feb 2020

None of the production’s design is anything less than accomplished – it looks fabulous, in fact – but given so many outlets it is difficult at times to know where to look. The sliding paper screens making up Pinkerton’s love nest are slid in and out by the stagehands, sometimes disguising an entrance or exit by one of the principals, sometimes serving as a blank on to which the shadow of another can be projected; behind them is the ramp down which the cast can enter in silhouette, backed by widescreen light that varies from clear day to romantic sunset; and in front the puppets that may represent children, dreams, or just puppets. So giddy with possibility, it’s as though no one has decided what the visual focus of the staging will be.

With this reliance on spectacle, there is also a lack of dynamism in the blocking. Although entrances are strikingly visual as characters come in great waves over the back, once they are downstage most of the action takes place in one plane, and tends to be fairly static, though this may be a function of the most dynamic performers – the puppeteers and scenery hands – being specifically invisible in black.

It is a more fitting spectacle with which this rousing production ends, however: where the trains of cloth that accompanied Butterfly on her arrival signified the freedom of her flight, they are at the close the blood she sheds as she renounces this world forever.

Matthew Grierson
February 2020

Photographs © Jane Hobson

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