Rhinegold Photo credit: Jane Hobson

Craig Dacey

Review: Madam Butterfly

11:42, 28th February 2020

Madam Butterfly – Puccini

English National Opera



Can you really have too much of a good thing?

The late Anthony Minghella’s staging of Madam Butterfly returns (again) to English National Opera, now on its seventh revival since it premiered at the London Coliseum 15 years ago – a true Olivier Award-winning crowd-pleaser. Puccini’s decadent score sweeps the audience off their feet, fluttering them into the realms of American patriarchy in its clash with Japanese traditions and its embracing of underage love affairs (probably best to overlook the legalities of that detail).

Madam Butterfly follows the journey of lieutenant Pinkerton of the US Navy, stationed in Nagasaki, and sung in this revival by American tenor Dimitri Pittas. After paying for an arranged marriage to a 15-year-old geisha, he makes a sharp exit, promising that he’ll return in the spring. Pittas looked the part, but throughout most of Act I seemed to battle against the orchestra, struggling to showcase his celebrated vocal colours. Although he has a lovely tone, it took a quick confused glance in the programme to remind me that he was American-born, as the character lacked any plausibility or depth – qualities which I hope he tunes into for the rest of the run.

Natalya Romaniw (Cio-Cio San) and Roderick Williams (Sharpless) in a scene of intimate puppetry

This highly acclaimed staging is a favourite of mine, transitioning from vast eye-watering backlit projection to intimate puppetry and tableaux. The continuous gentle movement of side-lighting and hydraulic staging transforms the Coliseum stage into a piece of art, although this cavernous space leaves the cast vulnerable at times, as though they’re staring down the barrel of a gun, making it impossible to brush over the slightest of mistakes. The unsung heroes of the production are the supporting ensemble, who bring bagfuls of vigour to the show and drive the complex scene changes, proving that even in silent roles, as Stanislavski remarked, ‘there are no small parts, only small actors’.

The ENO orchestra sounded stronger than ever, perfecting Puccini’s ravishing cinematic score, led by ENO’s music director Martyn Brabbins. Every phrase was handled with complete care, highlighting Brabbins’ skilful control of detail. It was a joy to hear a master at work.

A portrayal of innocence: Natalya Romaniw

Making her role debut as Cio-Cio San (Madam Butterfly) is Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw, tapping into her innocent side. On her entrance, the voice seemed plummy, as if she was singing through mouthfuls of candyfloss. I put this down to opening night nerves. Things soon smoothed out and led to some outstanding flourishes, showcasing Romaniw’s ease in high tessitura. Pinkerton (Dimitri Pittas), already remarried, returns to Japan with his new wife, not knowing he had left behind a son with Cio-Cio San. Romaniw’s transition from abandoned bride into mature motherhood is subtle but charming, perpetuating her maternal need to protect her son, Sorrow (portrayed in this production by an affecting puppet). Previously deemed a controversial aspect of the production, the use of puppetry was endearing and lifelike, allowing the audience to use their imagination and project their emotions onto the character, looking beyond its wooden fastenings.

Normally an irritating and colourless role, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Windsor-Lewis somehow always manages to bring life to Suzuki, like returning to an old friend, expelling her bright, rich vocal tone. British baritone Roderick Williams is another voice that really fits this score, with his playful yet secure portrayal of the US consul Sharpless. Williams has the rare knack of perfect comedic timing combined with vehemently expressed deep emotions.

Two intervals always seem a bit much for a production that commands its audience’s attention, forcefully breaking up the storyline and (annoyingly) giving the audience an excuse to shift their focus to another glass of prosecco. Nevertheless, this production still has its charms, remaining a favourite among audiences and showing that opera’s core repertoire doesn’t always need a refreshing new concept in order to cement itself as a classic. Can you really have too much of a good thing… Well, no!

Madam Butterfly continues at the London Coliseum until 17 April. eno.org

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