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November 07, 2005

Anthony Minghella directs Madam Butterfly - Puccini's Madam Butterfly at the Coliseum

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Puccini's Madam Butterfly
English National Opera, London Coliseum
conducted by David Parry, directed by Anthony Minghella
in repertory 5th November - 13th December 2005

Madam Butterfly was a very emotional young creature. In a few teen years, she used up the emotional resources that could have lasted a more normal woman an entire three score years and ten. As a model operatic heroine, Butterfly wasted no time on small talk or relaxation. Ecstasy and horror were her default responses, and it is audience collusion with her feelings that makes Madam Butterfly one of the great passionate rollercoasters of the repertory. Set this to luscious music, and every opera house in the world has a solid financial base from which to risk more musically adventurous operas. But of course, Madam Butterfly does present problems to a director.

The ineffably tedious option is, of course, politics: It doesn't take much adjustment of emphasis to exhibit Pinkerton as a banal ugly American. Fortunately, there are other possibilities. The previous production of Butterfly at the Coliseum achieved a notable success by emphasising ethnic Japanese themes and presenting Cho Cho San, exhibiting her morbid fascination with the sword with which her father committed seppuku, as not far from being a borderline psychotic. This would perhaps be the most convincing explanation of the plot in character terms. What does Anthony Minghella, spreading his wings after a string of successful films, do?

The answer is that he "aestheticises" everything (if the term may be permitted). The gorgeous music is now partnered by a string of brilliant visual effects. The basic décor is tripartite and its three changing strands of colour recall Rothko. A mirror above the stage doubles the action by giving us a bird's eye view of what is going on. Panels slide to and fro across the stage suggesting the way in which the characters have occluded reality – Pinkerton by his shallow irresponsibility, Butterfly by her passionate repudiation of her Japanese culture. It is this world of illusion on which the action hinges. Paper lights and Chinese lanterns make charming patterns on the stage, and even the famous robins that return in the springtime turn up as fluttering paper birds held aloft.

Minghella gets many striking effects from clothes and colour. Butterfly in bridal gear comes over the background hill (if any reference to nature can be allowed in such a highly stylised production) in a line of beautifully garbed maidens. It is pure visual delight, and soon the gaily coloured relatives have joined them for the protracted wedding ritual that irritates Pinkerton, who is becoming ever more impatient (as ugly Americans are) to get on with the main business. It is a dazzling scene. But perhaps the most striking of Minghella's inventions is a cadre of slim dark figures in black, who slip in and out of the stage, moving bits of the set here, carrying lanterns or bird images there, and in the last act manipulating the child puppet whom Butterfly dramatically produces to show the American consul that Pinkerton is not all forgotten. A child puppet where most productions have a real tiny tot? It is here that Minghella marries Western opera to Japanese Bunraku Puppet theatre. These dark figures are puppet operators, and in the Japanese tradition their greatest triumph is to be so insignificant that they give life to the puppets while being entirely insignificant in themselves. In this production they are likely to suggest the ancestral Japanese character that Cho Cho San cannot escape.

The disadvantage of these squads of manipulators on the stage is that they interfere with the fatal isolation that is part of the pathos of Butterfly's tragic end. And it is certainly a jolt to encounter not a real child but a puppet who looks so odd as to seem deformed. The more or less realistic drama of Butterfly, as a girl of good family descending to the status of a rashamen or temporary wife of a resident foreigner, gets lost as emotional derangement turns into the symptoms of a terrible dream.

Musically this production is splendidly done, and the Butterfly of the diminutive Mary Plazas making so slight a figure besides the large and beefy Pinkerton no doubt represents a realistic contrast of height in those times. Both of Pinkerton's naval uniforms were of an unrelieved dreariness, which certainly highlighted the rich colours of the Japanese. And David Parry (who also translated the libretto) drew a lovely rich tone from the orchestra.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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