Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Macbeth in Lyon

A revival of the Opéra de Lyon’s 2012 Occupy Wall St. production of Verdi’s 1865 Macbeth, transforming naive commentary into strange irony, some high art included.

Barber of Seville Is Fun in Tucson

On March 4, 2018, Arizona Opera presented Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in Tucson. Allen Moyer designed the bright and happy scenery for performances at Minnesota Opera,

Moody, Mysterious Morel

Long Beach Opera often takes willing audiences on an unexpected journey and such is undeniably the case with its fascinating traversal of The Invention of Morel.

Acis and Galatea: 2018 London Handel Festival

Katie Hawks makes quite a claim for Handel’s Acis and Galatea when, in her programme article, she describes it as the composer’s ‘most perfect work’. Surely, one might feel, this is a somewhat hyperbolic evaluation of a 90-minute pastoral masque, or serenade, based on an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has its origins in a private entertainment?

Oriana, Fairest Queen: Stile Antico celebrate the life and times of Elizabeth I

Stile Antico’s lunchtime play-list, celebrating the Virgin Queen’s long reign, shuffled between sacred and secular works, from penitential to patriotic, from sensual to celebratory.

Daniel Kramer's new La traviata at English National Opera

Verdi's La traviata is one of those opera which every opera company needs to have in its repertoire, and productions need to balance intelligent exploration of the issues raised by the work with the need to reach as wide an audience as possible with an opera which is likely to attract audience members who are not regular opera-goers.

Haydn's Applausus: The Mozartists at Cadogan Hall

Continuing their MOZART 250 series, The Mozartists/ Classical Opera began dipping into the operatic offerings of 1768 at Wigmore Hall in January, when they presented numbers from Mozart’s La finta semplice, Jommelli’s Fetonte, Hasse’s Pirano e Tisbe and Haydn’s Lo speziale.

Schubert Schwanengesang revisited—Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

Schwanengesang isn't Schubert's Swan Song any more than it is a cycle like Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise. The title was given it by his publishers Haslingers, after his death, combining settings of two very different poets, Ludwig Rellstab and Heinrich Heine. Wigmore Hall audiences have heard lots of good Schwanengesangs, including Boesch and Martineau performances in the past, but this was something special.

Rinaldo: The English Concert at the Barbican Hall

“After such cruel events, I don’t know if I am dreaming or awake.” So says Almirena, daughter of the Crusader Goffredo, when she is rescued by her beloved warrior-hero, Rinaldo, from the clutches of the evil sorceress, Armida.

Hamlet abridged and enriched in Amsterdam

French grand opera and small opera companies are an unlikely combination. Yet OPERA2DAY, a company of modest means, is currently touring the Netherlands with Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas.

The ROH's first production of From the House of the Dead

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production for the ROH of From the House of the Dead is ‘new’ in several regards. It’s (astonishingly) the first time that Janáček’s last opera has been staged at Covent Garden; it’s Warlikowski’s debut at Covent Garden; and the production uses a new 2017 critical edition prepared by John Tyrrell.

Così fan tutte at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With artifice, disguise, and questions on fidelity as the basis of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the composer’s mature opera has returned to the stage at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

WNO's Wheel of Destiny rolls into Birmingham

Welsh National Opera’s wheel of destiny has rolled into Birmingham this week, with Verdi’s sprawling tragedy, La forza del destino, opening the company’s ‘Rabble Rousing’ triptych at the Hippodrome.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal College of Music

The gossamer web of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sufficiently insubstantial and ambiguous to embrace multiple interpretative readings: the play can be a charming comic caper, a jangling journey through human pettiness and cruelty, a moonlit fairy fantasy or a shadowy erotic nightmare, and much more besides.

Robert Carsen's A Midsummer Night's Dream returns to ENO

Having given us Christopher Alden's strangely dystopic production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2011, English National Opera (ENO) has opted for Robert Carsen's bed-inspired vision for the latest revival of the opera at the London Coliseum.

Turandot in San Diego—Prima la voce

The big musical set pieces in Turandot require voice, voice, and more voice, and San Diego Opera has gifted us with a world-class cast of singing actors.

Dialogues de Carmélites at the Guildhall School: spiritual transcendence and transfiguration

Four years have passed since my last Dialogues des Carmélites, and on that occasion - Robert Carsen’s production for the ROH - heightened dramatic intensity, revolutionary insurrection (enhanced by an oppressed populace formed by a 67-strong Community Ensemble) and, under the baton of Simon Rattle, luxuriant musical rapture, were the order of the day.

'B & B’ in a new key

Seattle Opera’s new production of Béatrice et Bénédict is best regarded as a noble experiment, performed expressly to see if Berlioz’ delectable 1862 opéra comique can successfully be brought into the living repertory outside its native France. As such, it is quite a success.

Of Animals and Insects: a musical menagerie at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall was transformed into a musical menagerie earlier this week, when bass-baritone Ashley Riches, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and pianist Joseph Middleton took us on a pan-European lunchtime stroll through a gallery of birds and beasts, blooms and bugs.

Hugo Wolf, Italienisches Liederbuch

Nationality is a complicated thing at the best of times. (At the worst of times: well, none of us needs reminding about that.) What, if anything, might it mean for Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook? Almost whatever you want it to mean, or not to mean.



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.

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):