Madam Butterfly

Giacomo Puccini
English National Opera
London Coliseum
(2006)

It’s really a pretty sordid tale. Small wonder Bishop George Smith was outraged at the tendency for foreign bachelors to take up with one of the lovely geishas of Nagasaki.

Pinkerton of course, as befits an ensign of the US Navy, is marrying the lovely Cio-Cio-San in the presence of her large Japanese community, real and invented, with the qualified support of American consul Sharples, the one man who knows it will all end in tears.

Anthony Minghella’s production for English National Opera, first seen last November, one hundred years after the very first London production, is about as beautiful as it could be.

Aided by associate director and choreographer Carolyn Choa, Mingheli transforms the Coliseum stage into the hilltop above the town, mirrors cleverly revealing to us areas of the paper house stage normally unseen.

Michael Levine’s set is magical, its delicacy heightened by the colourful costumes of Han Feng. All this would be splendid music theatre – but, for good measure, the geisha’s infant child of Act 2 is represented by authentic Bunraku Japenese puppetry of Blind Summit Theatre, an effect so convincing as to strain the emotions to breaking point.

In her debut as Butterfly, Janice Watson is captivating, without any obvious attempt to reproduce the physical features of the geisha. Her soprano however, is geisha enough to move the full house at the Coliseum.

A pity then, that Gwyn Hughes Jones, who apologised at the outset of Saturday’s press night for a throat infection, was not able in the circumstances to match the leading lady’s bravura.

It has been suggested that this production plays down the American aspect of such cruel exploitation in the interests of the American box office (the production is due in New York). I hardly think so. For the uniform is still evident, the harbour guns still roar and the opposition of Sharples, excellently sung by David Kempster, to the ill-fated union is still clear. “She really means it,” the consul warns the headstrong seaman.

Hughes will sing this role better, though his failure to achieve the customary impact of the virile Pinkerton is surely due to his throat infection rather than to any attempts at diplomacy by Minghella.

Alan Oke resumes his excellent performance as the marriage broker and the splendid Jean Rigby continues as Suzuki.

The famous humming chorus which concludes Act2 part one, while beautifully balanced, seems more distant than usual. Yet with a production so rich in style and cherry blossom, it seems churlish to complain. And the build-up to the tragic climax, during which the innocent, child eyes of the puppet never for a moment leave his mother’s death drama, is as memorable as anything on stage.

The production can be seen at The Coliseum on May 5th, 10th, 12th, 16th, 25th, 27th with the final performance on May 31st.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole