Pulling the strings: ENO’s widescreen Butterfly

Puccini: Madam Butterfly ***

English National Opera, 8th May 2012

Madam Butterfly is one of two operas virtually guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of this traditionally stony-hearted critic (The Cunning Little Vixen is the other, should you be interested, so Glyndebourne should be on flood alert!). However, throughout this second ENO revival of Anthony Minghella’s classy staging, my tear ducts remained in a state of drought. Why? This is an incredibly stylish, glossy Butterfly, opulently costumed (Han Feng) against a largely bare stage, albeit sleek and lacquered. Michael Levine’s set has a steep rake creating a hill towards the rear over which most of the characters make their entrances and exits, often to spectacular visual effect. Acting is well directed (Sarah Tipple) and truthful; the singing, for the most part, excellent. This is, in short, a highly polished production, so why did it so utterly fail to move me?

© Clive Barda

© Clive Barda

The strange thing is that I have seen this production before – its incarnation at the Metropolitan Opera via a television broadcast – and was so moved by it that the opportunity to see it ‘in the flesh’ was too good to miss in my request list to Opera Britannia Towers. Minghella, in what tragically turned out to be his sole opera, brought his skilled film director’s eye to proceedings, creating a widescreen frame above which a mirror reflects characters ‘behind the scenes’ including the veiled kabuki-style actors wheeling the paper screens around to create the house Pinkerton has bought on a 999-year lease. Dancers are skilfully employed, choreographed by Carolyn Choa; a dumb show at the beginning, where the solo dancer flutters a pair of fans and is swathed in streams of scarlet, anticipating Butterfly’s suicide; while a dancer representing Pinkerton dances with a puppet Cio-Cio-San as origami birds herald the dawn during Butterfly’s ‘dream’.

Was it an issue surrounding language? I certainly have reservations around Italian repertoire in English translation – a lot of Verdi can sound like second-rate G&S, although bel canto comic operas work rather better. Puccini-wise, Tosca earlier this season was fine, but there were limitations in David Parry’s translation here (more of which later).

© Clive Barda

© Clive Barda

Perhaps Minghella’s direction is guilty of being a bit romanticised. The sheer opulence (you can tell this is a co-production with the Met) is both overwhelming and wonderful, frequently drenched in colour. The close of Act I, in particular, was superb, with a veritable ballet of floating lanterns before a backdrop of cascading cherry blossom. Butterfly is possibly too tragic a figure from early on, but then all the main characters are treated sympathetically. Pinkerton doesn’t come across as much of a cad, which is surely wrong, although Gwyn Hughes Jones still earned several pantomime boos at the curtain call – a curious habit developing among modern audiences.

Part of the problem lay in the controversial decision to have Sorrow, the child, played by a puppet (courtesy of Blind Summit Theatre). I’m not against the use of puppetry per se; animals have been portrayed by puppets in stage versions of His Dark MaterialsThe Lion King and War Horse quite brilliantly, as well as ENO’s own A Dog’s Heart. The director’s maxim of “Never work with children or animals” may be true – it’s difficult enough to find a child young/small enough to follow direction convincingly for the 2½-year old of the plot – and a puppet can allow for ultra-refined directorial detail. The puppeteers quickly become invisible, so much so that it’s easy to overlook how convincingly it’s executed, but the trouble is that your eye is always drawn to what the child is doing, to the detriment of Butterfly in particular. The longer it went on, the more I found myself resisting the director’s attempt to manipulate me. This happens when a child actor is used, of course, but here you could see the (metaphorical) strings and I’m afraid it irked.

Mary Plazas (Cio-Cio-San) and John Fanning (Sharpless) © Clive Barda

Mary Plazas (Cio-Cio-San) and John Fanning (Sharpless)
© Clive Barda

The two overriding factors, however, which influenced the emotional aspect of the drama surrounded Act II, one of which may not trouble you, the other of which you may luckily escape. Splitting the two scenes of Act II with an interval strikes me as an ill-conceived decision, albeit one which Puccini himself created for Brescia in 1904 after the opera’s disastrous première. It was a decision he later reversed and I’m inclined to agree. The flow of the action is interrupted quite needlessly and momentum is lost. Others may feel differently.

What I hope everyone could agree upon is that Madam Butterfly is not a comedy. This seemed to escape a segment of the first night audience, however, who heartily guffawed its way through much of Sharpless’ painful scene with Butterfly where he tries to read her Pinkerton’s letter and prepare her for the bad news ahead. This is the first scene in the opera where tears are virtually guaranteed from yours truly and to have the atmosphere destroyed by such vocal hooliganism probably accounted for much of my feelings later on. Is Parry’s translation at fault? “Goddam that bastard Pinkerton!” drew whoops of laughter – why? Because a (minor) expletive let loose from the lips of an operatic character? (Send them to see Le grand macabre, says I.) Are people so blind (and deaf) to the dramatic situation being portrayed on stage that they really found the situation funny? It’s not a problem unique to the Coliseum by any means. The Royal Opera’s Figaro this season suffered the same fate, this time where the audience laughter (appropriate enough) makes an appearance alongside the surtitles and not when the singers necessarily deliver the punchline. You may be fortunate indeed to avoid such audience participation later in the run.

Mary Plazas (Cio-Cio-San) © Clive Barda

Mary Plazas (Cio-Cio-San)
© Clive Barda

Despite these complaints, there is much to enjoy in this production. Visually, it’s frequently stunning, musically it’s secure. The diminutive Mary Plazas, ‘piccola’ indeed, returns to the production as a convincing Cio-Cio-San, especially when she runs into the arms of Pinkerton in Act I. Vocally, she is also on the small side for the role and one could sense Oleg Caetani sitting on the orchestra at times so as not to suffocate her. The vocal fragility this portrayed was not entirely inappropriate for the character, but more heft is required, ideally from a spinto soprano, which Plazas is not, with a creamier tone. “Un bel dì”, inexplicably not translated as “One fine day”, despite fitting perfectly, but as “On the far horizon”, had some exquisite phrasing, though, and was carefully nuanced.

Following his excellent Cavaradossi in Tosca earlier in ENO’s season, Gwyn Hughes Jones was as vocally resplendent as Pinkerton. He also partnered Plazas when this production was launched in 2005. His full tone has a wonderful ‘ping’ about it at present and although he doesn’t always cut through ensembles as one would wish, he was very good, particularly his fine “Addio, fiorito asil”.

Pamela Helen Stephen was quite magnificent as Suzuki, servant but frequently confidante and mother-figure to Butterfly. She and Plazas sang with great tenderness in the celebrated Flower Duet “Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio”, while she sang with riper tone than I’ve associated with this artist before. John Fanning as the American consul Sharpless suffered most from audience interruption/ translation issues, which is a pity as I felt he was presenting a sympathetic figure rather than an old duffer. Michael Colvin was an oily Goro, keen to make mischief, while Jonathan McGovern made much of Prince Yamadori’s brief role, offering sincerity and a fine rounded tone. Mark Richardson blustered effectively as The Bonze, while Catherine Young, towering over Plazas, sang impressively as Kate, Pinkerton’s American wife.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Pinkerton) and Mary Plazas (Cio-Cio-San) © Clive Barda

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Pinkerton) and Mary Plazas (Cio-Cio-San)
© Clive Barda

Caetani, returning to the Coliseum for the first time since Sir John in Love in 2006 (revival please!), drew some mightily impressive playing from the ENO Orchestra, especially in the emotional outbursts from the pit. There were a few miscues early on and tempi were on the leisurely side, but things soon settled down well. Let’s hope it’s not another six years before Caetani is invited back.

Given a better behaved audience, this performance may well have struck its emotional target with truer aim, despite my reservations about aspects of the production. ENO serves up an attractively sung and gloriously played Butterfly, and for much of Minghella’s opulent vision, there are good reasons to return for a second helping.

This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.

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