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Performances

Rena Harms as Madama Butterfly and David Butt Philip as Pinkerton [Photo © Tom Bowles]
21 May 2016

Madame Butterfly , ENO

Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.

Madame Butterfly , ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Rena Harms as Madama Butterfly and David Butt Philip as Pinkerton [Photo © Tom Bowles]

 

So much depends upon Peter Mumford’s stunning lighting design which in the opening moments floods Minghella’s cinematic vista with the fiery red of the rising sun against which a geisha’s silhouette curves and bends in elegant pirouettes and graceful bows, her folding-fan catching the sun’s gold as it flutters like a butterfly wing. Mumford’s colours are stirringly vibrant but, paradoxically, shift subtly from hue to hue. Acidic orange fades to an apricot which mutates to dusky rose, then deepens through cerise to purple: it is as if we are sliding through a shimmering rainbow, an oxymoronic fusion of intensity and insubstantiality.

Above the stage a shiny dark slope hangs, lacquer-black, hazily and suggestively reflecting the shifting movements and colours below — like a liquid mirror. Mumford illuminates Han Feng’s glorious rich-coloured and glossy textured costumes with searing intensity. When day turns to night, the preciousness and fragility of Pinkerton’s and Cio-Cio-San’s delusory dreaming at the end of Act 1 is evoked by the raindrops of blush-tintedsakura petals which float down between the drifting paper lantern-domes, forming trailing fronds of starlight — reminiscent of the hannabi displays so familiar of Japanese summer nights. At the close, the burning crimson returns: as Butterfly commits ritual self-sacrifice, the trains of her kimono, with which the black-clad dancers of Blind Sight encircle and bind her at the opening, now unravel like streams of blood, drowning all in guilt and repentance.

The visual opulence made even more impact than I remembered from my previous viewings. As the characters entered from the rear via the crest of designer Michael Levine’s sharply sloping stage, the nation’s culture of regal ceremony and ritual was powerfully intimated. The sliding shoji swept across the minimalist stage forming countless spatial permutations, like the screens of a magician who deftly tricks us with his optical illusions and mirages.

The dancers and puppeteers of Blind Summit were also even more hypnotic and dexterous than I remembered, pulsing and swirling with a dangerous energy (choreography is by Carolyn Choa). The mime-dance at the start of Act 2 Scene 2 where a fan/knife makes ambiguous patterns in the air, foreshadowing Butterfly’s suicide, was compelling and disquieting.

Moreover, the intimations aroused by the extraordinarily sensitive manipulations of the bunraku puppet which embodies Butterfly’s child, Swallow, were truly affecting — highly nuanced and allusive. Tiny footsteps suggested both animation and the unsteadiness of youthful feet; a backwards glance at his mother conveyed an unquestioning love and trust as the child stumbled towards the out-stretched hand of the American Consul. Moreover where I previously found the uncanny veracity of the marionette rather distancing and alien, now the ‘strangeness’ seemed to perfectly convey the clash of cultures. Cio-Cio-San has declared her allegiance to her husband’s United States of America and invites the Consul her house — a tiny part of ‘home’ in this ‘foreign’ land — proudly and defiantly revealing her blue-eyed child. But, the stylisation of the puppet’s movements belies the sailor-suit he wears: he is exotic, Japanese, a literal representation of that culture’s traditions and values.

It was a pity, then, that the cast’s achievements were so mixed. In the title role, American soprano Rena Harms was a surprisingly confident — and at times coquettish — fifteen-year-old in Act 1. I have lived in Japan and I have yet to see a Japanese woman laugh without turning her face and covering her mouth, but this young geisha was full of self-possession, aware of her own charm. This Butterfly really was more American than Japanese. Harms’ soprano is fairly light and when challenged to rise above the ENO orchestra — who were encouraged to play with rather too much enthusiasm and force at times by conductor Sir Richard Armstrong — her voice acquired a slightly hard edge and astringency. More spinto strength was needed — such as was exhibited by Stephanie Windsor-Lewis who was a sympathetic Suzuki — so that the dramatic climaxes could be conquered without strain. A Romantic fullness would have benefitted ‘One fine day’, where the instrumental doubling tended to obscure the vocal line in the lower registers. Disappointing, too, was Harms’ diction: scarcely a consonant was audible and vowels were oddly distorted — the surtitles which should be redundant in a house which prides itself on performing in English were absolutely essential. The only, partial saving grace was that one was not distracted by the inappropriate intonation and tone of the English language within this Italianate idiom.

The same could not be said of David Butt Philip whose F.B. Pinkerton was the epitome of RP. In fact, so elevated in style and tone was his diction that he was more reserved English gentleman than swaggering Yankee. But, he sang with consistently stylish phrasing and, though his tenor is not a big voice, was able to project without vocal tension.

This Pinkerton seemed bewildered at how such things had come to pass. Taken together with Harms’ assertiveness, this altered the tragic dynamic between the protagonists and between Butterfly and her environment. Pinkerton was less a villain than a naïve romantic, too immature to reflect on consequences; Butterfly less a victim than a misguided dreamer, desperate to assume the regalia of Pinkerton’s idealised fantasy.

When I heard George von Bergen in the role of the American Consul Sharpless in 2013 I was not overly impressed, finding him resonant but lacking in focus, dramatically and vocally. On this occasion, he was the leading light. Singing with excellent diction and real vocal warmth, his compassion and contrition when confronted with Butterfly’s unwavering faith and love was utterly convincing, and more affecting in the light of his earlier complicity in Pinkerton’s colonial presumption.

Alun Rhys-Jenkins reprised his Goro of 2013 but while his phrasing and tone were engaging, I found this marriage broker less vivacious and mischievous than at the previous hearing. Matthew Durkan was a noble Prince Yamadori but his implorings did not equal the majesty of his ceremonial attire. Mark Richardson, also returning to the production, made a menacing impression as The Bonze, Butterfly’s fierce uncle. Samantha Price sang confidently as Kate Pinkerton.

Overall, whatever the unevenness in the casting, this Butterfly is worth catching for the ocular sumptuousness and gratification that it supplies in to heady excess.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production details:

Cio-Cio-San — Rena Harms, Suzuki — Stephanie Windsor-Lewis, Pinkerton — David Butt Philip, Sharpless — George van Bergen, Goro — Alun Rhys-Jenkins, Prince Yamadori — Matthew Durkan, The Bonze — Mark Richardson, Yakuside — Philip Daggett, Kate Pinkerton — Samantha Price, Imperial Commissioner — Paul Napier-Burrows, Official Registrar — Roger Begley, Cio-Cio-San’s Mother — Natalie Herman, Cousin — Morag Boyle, Aunt — Judith Douglas, Sorrow — Laura Caldow, Tom Espiner, Irena Stratieva; director — Anthony Minghella (revival director — Sarah Tipple), associate director/choreographer — Carolyn Choa (revival choreographer — Anita Griffin), set designer — Michael Levine, lighting designer — Peter Mumford (revival lighting designer — Ian Jackson-French), costume designer — Han Feng, Orchestral and Chorus of English National Opera, puppetry — Blind Summit Theatre, Mark Down & Nick Barnes. English National Opera at the London Coliseum, Wednesday 18th May 2016.

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