Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

Il Trovatore at Dutch National Opera

Four lonely people, bound by love and fate, with inexpressible feelings that boil over in the pressure cooker of war. Àlex Ollé’s conception of Il Trovatore for Dutch National Opera hits the bull’s eye.

The Barber of Seville, ENO London

This may be the twelfth revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for English National Opera, but the ready laughter from the auditorium and the fresh musical and dramatic responses from the stage suggest that it will continue to amuse audiences and serve the house well for some time to come.

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Bostridge, Barbican London

The third and final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s survey of Monteverdi’s operas at the Barbican began and ended in darkness; the red glow of the single candle was an apt visual frame for a performance which was dedicated to the memory of the late Andrew Porter, the music critic and writer whose learned, pertinent and eloquent words did so much to restore Monteverdi, Cavalli and other neglected music-dramatists to the operatic stage.

English Touring Opera - Debussy, Massenet and Offenbach

English Touring Opera’s recent programming has been ambitious and inventive, and the results have been rewarding. We had two little-known Donizetti operas, The Siege of Calais and The Wild Man of the West Indies, in spring 2015, while autumn 2014 saw the company stage comedy by Haydn (Il mondo della luna) and romantic history by Handel (Ottone).

“Nessun Dorma — The Puccini Album”

Sounds swirl with an urgent emotionality and meandering virtuosity on Jonas Kaufmann’s new Puccini album—the “real one”, according to Kaufmann, whose works were also released earlier this year on Decca records, allegedly without his approval.

Verismo Double Header in Los Angeles

LA Opera got its season off to an auspicious beginning with starry revivals of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci.

Viva Verdi at Opera Las Vegas

On September 9, 2015, Opera Las Vegas presented James Sohre’s production of Viva Verdi at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz. It was a delightful evening of arias, duets and ensembles by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The program included many of the composer’s blockbuster arias and scenes from famous operas such as Aida, La traviata, and Macbeth.

Barbera Sings a Fascinating Recital in San Diego

On Saturday, September 19, San Diego Opera opened its 2015-2016 season with a recital by tenor René Barbera. This was the first Polly Puterbaugh Emerging Artist Award Recital and no artist could have been more deserving than the immensely talented Barbera.

Wigmore Hall Complete Schubert Song Series begins with Boesch and Johnson

The Wigmore Hall, London, has launched Schubert : The Complete Songs, a 40-concert series to run through the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There have been Schubert marathons before, like BBC Radio 3's all-Schubert week and The Oxford Lieder Festival's Schubert series last year, but the Wigmore Hall series will be a major landmark because the Wigmore Hall is the Wigmore Hall, the epitome of excellence.

Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

Marion Cotillard and Marc Soustrot bring the drama to the sweeping score of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne dArc au bûcher, an adaptation of the Trial of Joan of Arc

Luisa Miller in San Francisco

Luisa Miller sits on the fringes of the repertory, and since its introduction into the modern repertory in the 1970’s it comes around every 15 or so years. Unfortunately this 2015 San Francisco occasion has not bothered to rethink this remarkable opera.

Salieri: La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave)

Demonised by Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, Antonio Salieri lives in the public imagination as the embittered rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — whose genius he lamented and revered in equal measure, and against whom he schemed and plotted at the Emperor Joseph II’s Viennese court.

Chicago Lyric’s Stars Shine at Millennium Park

The annual concert given by Lyric Opera of Chicago as an outdoor event previewing the forthcoming season took place on 11 September 2015 at Millennium Park.

Far in the Heavens — Choral Music of Stephen Paulus

Stephen Paulus provided the musical world, and particularly the choral world, with music both provocative and pleasing through a combination of lyricism and a modern-Romantic tonal palette.

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice

Orpheus — that Greek hero whose songs could enchant both deities and beasts, whose lyre has become a metaphor for the power of music itself, and whose journey to the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, kick-started the art of opera in Mantua in 1607 — has been travelling far and wide around the UK in 2015.

Vaughan Williams and Holst Double Bill

One is a quasi-verbatim rendering of J.M. Synge’s bleak tale of a Donegal family’s fateful dependency on and submission to the deathly power of the sea.

Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall

Is there anything that countertenor Iestyn Davies cannot do with his voice?

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

BBC Proms Youth Choir shines in a performance notable for its magical transparency

Prom 67: Bernstein — Stage and Screen

The John Wilson Orchestra have been annual summer visitors to the Royal Albert Hall since their Proms debut in 2009 and, with their seductive blend of technical precision, buoyant glitziness and relaxed insouciance, their concerts have become a hugely anticipated fixture and a sure highlight of the Promenade season.

Prom 65: Alice Coote sings Handel

Disappointing staging mars Alice Coote’s vibrant if wayward musical performance



Judith Howarth as Madam Butterfly [Photo by Tristram Kenton courtesy of English National Opera]
21 Jun 2009

Madam Butterfly - English National Opera, London Coliseum

Following the death of the American film director Anthony Minghella, ENO were left with a gap in the season vacated by the new production which he had been engaged to direct, and what better way to do so than by bringing back his immensely popular 2005 staging of Madam Butterfly? Minghella’s widow, Carolyn Choa (who has worked on the production from its original conception) was charged with resurrecting the production in tribute.

Giacomo Puccini: Madam Butterfly

Cio-Cio San (Madam Butterfly): Judith Howarth; Pinkerton: Bryan Hymel; Sharpless: Brian Mulligan; Suzuki: Christine Rice; Goro: Michael Colvin; Yamadori: Richard Burkhard; Kate Pinkerton: Madeleine Shaw; Imperial Commissioner: Paul Napier-Burrows. English National Opera. Conductor: Edward Gardner. Original Director: Anthony Minghella. Revival Director: Carolyn Choa. Designer: Michael Levine. Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford. Costume Designer: Han Feng. Choreographer: Carolyn Choa. Puppetry: Blind Summit Theatre.

Judith Howarth as Madam Butterfly

Photos by Tristram Kenton courtesy of English National Opera


And a worthy tribute it is. This season’s cast is easily the strongest that Minghella’s staging has yet enjoyed here at the Coliseum (it’s a co-production with the Met, and the Lithuanian National Opera). Judith Howarth returned to the title role from the last revival, with a portrayal that has grown in stature since the last time. Her fullish lyric soprano remains a touch on the light side, but gives a real sense of being at one with the orchestra, and picks out the delicacy of the dialogues with Pinkerton and Suzuki; she draws the character with just the right balance of strength and vulnerability.

The two men, both appropriately imported from the USA, are new to both the production and the company; Brian Mulligan’s Sharpless is particularly worthy of praise, acting with skilled subtlety such that every inner thought came across. Bryan Hymel sings Pinkerton in a strong, clear tenor; if his phrasing is rather linear and matter-of-fact it only serves to add to the superficiality of the character.

In fact, the whole staging serves to highlight Pinkerton’s superficiality, or rather the superficiality which he ascribes to Nagasaki and its inhabitants. The drama unfolds in a world of heightened, fantastical colours, the vibrant hues of Han Feng’s costume designs contrasting with the shiny black letter-box of a set, evoking the curiously chaste exoticism which so fascinates Pinkerton. Two of Blind Summit Theatre’s brilliant bunraku puppets act as Suzuki’s co-servants, introduced by Goro in Act 1 while Pinkerton is cooing over the novelty value of his new marital home; it is quite clear before he even states it overtly that Cio-Cio-San stands no chance of being treated as a ‘real’ wife. The most fully characterised of the puppets is that used for Butterfly’s young son, the intricacy of its movements almost bringing the child to life - but retaining that layer of artificiality which underlines that even Sharpless to some extent doesn’t have a full understanding of the Japanese as human equals. The orchestral prelude to the final scene features a dream sequence in which a puppet Cio-Cio-San is reunited in a pas de deux with a human Pinkerton; a realisation of a deeply held wish on Butterfly’s part, but at the same time almost an acceptance on her part of his perception that the two belong to separate worlds.

Ultimately, this approach results in a degree of emotional frustration for the audience; somehow I want Pinkerton to be jolted too late into recognising Butterfly for the person she is. I yearn for a sudden gear-change into ugly realism at the end; for Butterfly’s suicide to be graphic and literal. Instead, the blood flowing from her body is unfurled in red silk by balletic extras. It all makes a consistent point; Pinkerton is going back to his convenient, socially-sanitised American existence, and perhaps he never will truly grasp the magnitude of what he has done to his first wife back in Nagasaki.

Madam_Butterfly__004.gifJudith Howarth as Madam Butterfly, Christine Rice as Suzuki and Bryan Hymel as F. B. Pinkerton

If there is a shortage of raw emotion on stage, there is an abundance of it in the pit. Edward Gardner, fresh from his revelatory Peter Grimes, gives a blazingly passionate account of the score, unequalled in my memory - and the chorus have rarely sounded better, either; the humming chorus was firm in intonation and ethereal of timbre. The supporting cast is exceptional, particularly Christine Rice’s Suzuki and Michael Colvin’s Goro.

Ruth Elleson © 2009

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):