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Reviews

27 Feb 2020

A wonderful role debut for Natalya Romaniw in ENO's revival of Minghella's Madama Butterfly

The visual beauty of Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madama Butterfly, now returning to the Coliseum stage for its seventh revival, still takes one’s breath away.

Madama Butterfly at English National Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Madama Butterfly, English National Opera

Photo credit: Jane Hobson

 

Before a note is played, a geisha’s silhouette emerges into the breath-held silence, etched against a carmine sky. She glides and floats, her fans fluttering decorously, glinting in the golden sun. As she raises her arms, her kimono flickers, as transparent as a butterfly’s veined wing. Her obi trails behind her, a blood-red bridal train. Scooped up by four dancers, the sash sculpts curving geometries which twist about the geisha, confining, restraining. When, in the opera’s final moments, Cio-Cio-San re-enacts her father’s fate, her wedding obi becomes a silk wound, seeping and swirling, a bloodless emblem of betrayal and transcendence.

ENO production MB.jpg Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Peter Mumford’s lighting pits complementary hues in eye-dazzling combinations. The ‘visual banquet’ that I admired in 2013 seemed an even more intensely piercing colour-feast on this occasion. Han Feng’s costumes heighten the quasi-theatrical strangeness of the sense-saturating world in which Pinkerton finds himself seduced. Surfeit is balanced with simplicity, though: the beige shoji that slide noiselessly, like sleights of hand; the tendrils of cherry blossom that dangle tender pink against the black night sky.

Bunraku ENO.jpg Natalya Romaniw and Blind Summit Theatre. Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Then, there are the bunraku puppets, brought to life by the conjurer’s craft of members of Blind Summit Theatre. First time round, I’d found the puppets too stylised: a representation of the west’s ‘othering’ of the east. But, in 2016 I was won over by the truthfulness of the puppets’ uncanny realism, and here the mime-dance at the start of Act 2 Scene 2 foreshadowing Butterfly’s suicide was powerful and troubling. It was hard to believe that young Sorrow, dressed in a US Navy sailor-suit, rushing in stuttering steps to grasp his mother, tilting his head quizzically, proffering his hand to the saddened Sharpless, was not real.

Romaniv Butterfly.jpgNatalya Romaniw. Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Singing her first Butterfly, Natalya Romaniw made a compelling entrance, the strong core at the heart of her shining soprano preceding her arrival at Goro’s marriage-brokering manoeuvres. Perhaps the creamy depths and heights of Romaniw’s soprano cannot quite capture the innocence of the fifteen-year-old ingenue, but the Welsh soprano worked hard to convey her naivety, and of Cio-Cio-San’s honour and pride, feistiness and gentleness, vivacity and vulnerability, there was no doubt. This Butterfly was bursting with a passion that she herself could barely know or understand. If I say that ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ brought I tear to my eye, I am not speaking figuratively. And, the ENO Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, contributed greatly to the emotive power, so exquisite were the pianissimo gestures and textures. I had been underwhelmed by Brabbins’ approach in Act 1, but here understatement and delicacy were magically hypnotic, and thereafter there was more fire in the orchestral belly.

Pittas and Williams.jpg Dimitri Pittas and Roderick Williams. Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

American tenor Dimitri Pittas, making his ENO debut, was a rather clamorous Pinkerton, struggling at the top and compensating for lyricism with volume. The effect was to make Pinkerton, at least initially, even more of a cardboard villain than usual; though, more effectively, it also made the US interloper even more of a stranger in this foreign land. By Act 3, this Pinkerton’s uncomprehending bewilderment was more moving than I had anticipated.

The other members of the cast were accomplished but did not make much of a mark, excepting Roderick Williams who, as Sharpless, was brow-beaten by Pittas’ barking in Act 1, but who sculpted a flesh-and-blood figure of persuasive empathy and sensitivity in Act 2, his lovely soft baritone infusing his exchanges with Butterfly with humanising kindness. Stephanie Windsor-Lewis was a reliable Suzuki but did not convey the fierceness of her loyalty and love for her mistress. Alasdair Elliott’s well-defined tone and clean enunciation skilfully captured Goro’s contemptuous condescension. Keel Watson was a thunderous Bonze, Njabulo Madlala a rather wobbly Yamadori. Katie Stephenson completed the cast as a somewhat tentative Kate Pinkerton.

This was Romaniw’s night. And, there surely will be many more such nights.

Madama Butterfly continues in repertory until 17th April.

Claire Seymour

Cio-Cio San - Natalya Romaniw, Pinkerton - Dimitri Pittas, Sharpless - Roderick Williams, Suzuki - Stephanie Windsor-Lewis, Goro - Alasdair Elliott, The Bonze - Keel Watson, Prince Yamadori - Njabulo Madlala, Kate Pinkerton - Katie Stevenson; Director - Anthony Minghella, Revival Director - Glen Sheppard, Conductor - Martyn Brabbins, Set Designer - Michael Levine, Lighting Designer - Peter Mumford, Costume Designer -Han Feng, Associate Director/Choreographer - Carolyn Choa, Revival Choreographer - David John, Puppetry - Blind Summit, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Wednesday 26th February 2020.


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