Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly
What happens when you get an Oscar-winning film director to stage an opera? In the case of Madam Butterfly, directed by Anthony Minghella, first staged by ENO at the Coliseum in 2005, something extraordinary and beautiful. It’s a production that not only provides a new insight into the opera but also lives on today as the testimony of the child of an Italian immigrant family who grew up immersed in opera on the Isle of Wight. It won an Olivier award for best new opera in 2006 and is now in its 7th revival with last night being the first show, directed by Glen Shepphard and with Natalya Romaniw in the title role and Dimitri Pittas as Pinkerton.
The magic of Madam Butterfly goes well beyond the music. The staging is simple with sensitive lighting reinforcing everything we watch. A team of elegant dancers dressed in black move the sets as required but also create evocative fan dances following the Mai style of Japanese dance. Madam Butterfly’s son is portrayed by a puppet, based on the Japanese ayatsuri jōruri or Bunraku tradition, with extraordinary humanisation thanks to the immaculate work of Blind Summit puppeteers.
Madam Butterfly is based on the true story of a young geisha in Nagasaki, just fifteen years old. In the opera, she falls in love with an American Naval Officer called Pinkerton. He arranges a marriage ceremony, all the while telling Sharpless (Roderick Williams), the American Consul, that he’s glad his 999-year marriage contract contains a monthly renewal option and that he will one day marry a ‘real’ American wife. Sharpless warns him that Madam Butterfly, Cio-Cio San ‘means it’ – and the depth of that commitment is reinforced when we learn that she’s renounced Buddhism in favour of her new husband’s religion.
Pinkerton leaves for America, promising to return, and Madam Butterfly waits and watches patiently. Her maid, Suzuki (Stephanie Windsor-Lewis), reminds her that they are penniless and starving – and the marriage broker, Goro (Alisdair Elliot), returns with a new suitor in the form of Prince Yamadori (Njabulo Madlala).
But Madam Butterfly remains loyal to her husband. For a brief moment, when Pinkerton’s ship arrives back in the harbour, she is reassured that he’s returning to her. She sits patiently with Suzuki and her son, watching and waiting.
Sadly, Pinkerton has returned with his new American wife. When he learns of his child, he decides that the best course of action is to adopt him and take him back to America. Sharpless is reluctantly engaged to broker the deal.
Butterfly agrees to the adoption, but, to make sure her son does not feel that he’s been dishonoured by being abandoned, commits suicide.
Madam Butterfly is always a popular opera with memorable music from Puccini and a tear-jerking storyline. Minghella’s sublime interpretation brings to life the cultural differences between American and Japanese society at the turn of the twentieth century. Natalya Romaniw as Madam Butterfly was poignant and vocally flawless. Dimitri Pittas’ Pinkerton dominated the stage with a full lyric range. Vocally, at times he overwhelmed the sensitive Sharpless, played by Roderick Williams, perhaps deliberately? I loved the characterisation of Prince Yamadori, played by Njabulo Madlala and Stephanie Windsor-Lewis’ Suzuki was immaculate.
If you’ve seen this ENO production of Madam Butterfly before, I suspect, like me, you’d be happy to see it again. If you haven’t been then, it’s one not to miss. And, if you’ve never seen an opera before, this would be a great one to start with…
Running time: 2 hours 50 mins (including 2 intervals)
Booking from: 26 Feb 2020
Booking until: 17 Apr 2020
English National Opera,
St Martin’s Lane,
London WC2N 4ES.
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