Madam Butterfly is in the highest class of operatic weepies. What could be more tragically appealing than a beautiful Japanese geisha falling in love with the American naval officer who has paid for her services, being abandonned, giving birth, and then committing suicide when he comes back with his US bride! It is now over a hundred and twenty years since it was first performed ain the Scala Milan, and it has never lost its place in the hearts of opera lovers all over the world.
The ENO’s production, first seen in 2005 is itself a survivor of the days when grand subjects called forth grand settings. Its director Anthony Minguella who very sadly died in 2008, made sure that the glorious pantomime of Japanese life was made real with dazzling costumes whilst evoking the simplicity of Japanese dwellings and the openness of Nagasaki Harbour where the drama is set.
Puccini himself became fascinated by the culture of the geisha and whereas the story is hardly typical, geishas being generally keen on the money angle as they passed from man to man, it is made convincing by the quality of the music and singing. Most important is the role of Madam Butterfly or Cio-Cio San who is scarcely off the stage. Happily one of the most exciting UK singers, the Welsh soprano, Natalya Romaniw plays Butterfly with a delicate sweetness at the start and by the end a sweeping breadth of range where the soaring top notes are held steady by her rich lower register. Butterfly must tear the heart strings and she does.
The other principal roles are well sung and well acted. Dmittri Pittas plays the brash Pinkerton who enjoys Butterfly’s love without ever guessing at her true emotion and when he does, is too cowardly to face her in person. His strong voice, sometimes almost brutal, suits Pinkerton’s nature. Baritone Roderick Williams as the American Sharpless holds the action together as well as showing a suppleness in his voice which mirrors his sympathy for poor Butterfly. Suzuki is a little stolid as if her care for her mistress is hardly of great concern but she may also provide a suitably ordinary background for the magnificent flights of our heroine. The famous aria, ‘One fine day! ‘ is sung here as well as at any time.
There are two areas where, although not spoiling my enjoyments in the evening, I had problems. Firstly, there is the use of puppets, particularly to represent Butterfly’s little son. Try as I might, and, knowing that puppets are a particularly Japanese creation, I could not emote with Butterfly as she stroked her beloved son’s weirdly small, wooden face. Secondly, I resented having to leave the auditorium between the second and third act. At that point the action is moving swiftly to its tragic end and a break of twenty minutes is something more than an irritation.
However, this wonderful production is still absolutely worth a second and third visit. Under the baton of ENO Music Director Martyn Brabbins it cannot fail to rouse even the most hard-hearted.
English National Opera
Director: Anthony Minghella
Revival Director: Glen Sheppard
Conductor: Martyn Brabbins