Monday, 4 February 2008

Madame Butterly - ENO

Madame Butterfly by Puccini
ENO @ The Coliseum Jan 31
st -7th March (9 perfs)
Directed by Anthony Minghella

Conducted by David Parry

Reviewed By Kimberley Knudson

Any production returning for a second revival brings with it a promise of something extraordinary. Anthony Minghella’s interpretation of Puccini’s tale of doomed love set in Japan, brought back by Associate Director/Choreographer Carolyn Choa, gives us precisely that in a production at times quite breathtaking in style. The spartan set, with its polished floor and huge mirror above, echo the black lacquered box within which Cio-Cio-San keeps her few possessions. As the mirror rises at the opening of the performance the stage is bathed in a deep blood red, slowly a silhouette of a young Japanese bride emerges, and around her four masked dancers begin to wind crimson silk. All of this before a note is even played. If you came expecting cinematic style opulence from Minghella you will not be disappointed.

Whilst the set is minimalist in appearance, the use of screens emulating the bamboo ones used in Japanese houses, the pink cherry blossom falling gently on the lovers at the end of Act 1 and the curtain of petals falling slowly from the roof all add to the stunning visuals.

Minghella also brings more invention in the use of Bunraku puppetry, the puppets being manipulated by black clad figures. Whilst this device works in the thought/dream sequence during the intermezzo in Act 2 using a puppet for Cio-Cio-San, we are left without the usual focus for our emotions namely Sorrow, Cio-Cio-San’s son. The puppeteers manipulate the figure with consummate skill making all the movements incredibly lifelike, however the slightly macabre, skull like head of the puppet detracts from the image and renders any attempt at emotional connection nigh on impossible.

Peter Mumford’s lighting sympathetically emphasizes the mood of the piece, particularly when Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki are starkly lit centre stage against a white screen, the sense of loneliness and desperation are palpable.

Han Feng’s costumes are bursting with a riot of colour from across the spectrum and with the reflections in the mirrored section of the set the effect is dazzling but somehow not distracting, as the orchestra, splendidly conducted by David Parry, keep us focused on Puccini’s enthralling score.

Judith Howard’s Cio-Cio-San is at once innocent and trusting, yet clearly no ordinary Tea House girl who can be bought and herein lies her downfall. Howard brings naivety and vulnerability to the role, her voice carrying clearly even at the quietest moments. Gwyn Hughes Jones reprising his role as Pinkerton provokes disgust at his attitude towards his marriage to Cio-Cio-San, cutting the imposing figure expected of a naval Lieutenant. Ashley Holland as Sharpless, at first a little drowned by the orchestra, grows with each scene and by the end shows a level of emotion hitherto unexpected but perfectly judged. Karen Cargill imbues Suzuki with the love of a mother for her daughter, rather than that of a maid for her mistress, thereby evoking much sympathy for the plight of the two women.

Of the remaining cast William Berger of the ENO Young singers deserves special mention for his well received role as Prince Yamadori.

Photos by Alastair Muir

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