Ravishing Visual Beauty: Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the English National Opera

Puccini's Madama Butterfly or Madame Butterfly is, unquestionably, one of opera's most beloved tales. In many ways it seems fairly straightforward to produce. The snags come, however, in the way the emotional content must be communicated. The first act culminating in "Vogliatemi, bene," and the opening "Un bel dí vedremo" of the second act must create enough passionate, romantic tension to hold through the entirety of the second act (with the important exception, perhaps, of the revelation of her son) and most of the third act to the point of Pinkerton's return and ultimate betrayal. Most of the actual time of the opera is spent waiting, and unless the anticipation sets up an electric feeling of suspense, that waiting can be very boring.

This review will run in somewhat reverse order - focusing on major characters, then comprimarios, and finally on the production itself.

General information & synopsis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madama_Butterfly

Madama Butterfly | Giacomo Puccini


Director | Sarah Tipple/Anthony Minghella*
Set Designer | Michael Levine
Costume Designer | Han Feng
Lighting Designer | Peter Mumford
Choreographer | Anita Griffin/Carolyn Choa*
Puppetry | Blind Summit Theatre, Mark Down, Fiona Clift

Cio-Cio-San (Madam Butterfly) | Dina Kuznetsova
Suzuki | Pamela Helen Stephen
B.F. Pinkerton | Gwyn Hughes Jones
Sharpless | George von Bergen
Goro | Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Prince Yamadori | Alexander Robin Baker
The Bonze | Mark Richardson
Yakuside | Philip Daggett
Imperial Commissioner | Paul Napier-Burrows
Official Registrar | Roger Begley
Cio-Cio-San's mother | Natalie Herman
Aunt | Judith Douglas
Cousin | Morag Boyle
Kate Pinkerton | Catherine Young
Sorrow (puppetry) | Tom Espiner, Julia Innocenti, Laura Caldow

Conductor | Gianluca Marcianò
Orchestra, Chorus, and Dancers of the English National Opera

*Original production creators
Dina Kuznetsova leads English National Opera's production of Madam Butterfly, as the English translation of the title puts it, as a cuttingly naïve Butterfly. Her voice possesses exactly the tone one might expect from the Russian-American soprano - pleasantly full with a sense of deepness. Some might prefer a more stereotypically Italianate sound but if Kuznetsova lacks the squillando thrust to drown the orchestra at the biggest moments (such as the end of "Un bel dì vedremo"), the surprising contrast between the dark voice and her interpretation of the character is moving. The singing has an pleasantly unusual amount of Bel Canto artistry to it, as well. Kuznetsova plays toward the naïveté of the character, offering an unusually effective blitheness right up until the very last moments of the opera, interrupted otherwise only by sadness at the end of Act II, Part I. The entrance of Tristeza is somewhat unmoving but the return of Pinkerton is harbour surprisingly emotional yet still naïve, hence, when Butterfly's world finally crashes down in "Con onor muore," the effect is crippling.

In combination, Kuznetsova and Gwyn Hughes Jones perform an evocative "Vogliatemi bene," with Kuznetsova's naïveté helping to sell the sense of true love even if Jones' Pinkerton is very cavalier about the affair in his private interactions with Goro and Sharpless. The emotion he lets loose in the duet, however, helps to make his later bind upon returning to Japan more convincing, alleviating the sometimes-problem of Pinkerton suddenly having a heart when he previously seems merely a villain. For his own part, Jones' Pinkerton often seems to lack chemistry except at key moments (such as the duet). On some level this works, but it does lead to a feeling of disengagement. His generous voice is pleasant, if just touched by nasality, in the lower and middle range. Like Kuznetsova's, though, it is also not stereotypically Italianate. In the middle-top and the top he shows signs of the all too common lirico-spinto strain. This phenomenon creates a not entirely unpleasant sound at the top, but one that lacks the freedom of lighter voices or the most phenomenal spinto tenor voices. Despite, Jones crafts an astounding "Addio, fiorito asil." In this aria that often feels, short, hollow, strained, and emotionally undercharged, Jones infuses a sense anguished remorse that gives him some sympathetic pathos without absolving him of his crimes. These two minutes are some of the most moving in the performance.
While Butterfly and Pinkerton unquestionably star in the opera, Suzuki can make or break those slow period of waiting and Pamela Helen Stephen's appearance in the role is unparalleled. Stephen's voice has the depth of tone demanded of a Puccini mezzo-soprano yet it rings like vibrating crystal. In contrast to Kuznetsova's painfully oblivious Butterfly, Stephen's Suzuki is completely "matter of fact" and almost detached, acting as a foil through her complete, world-weary cognizance of what is going on. As the reality of Suzuki's prophetic weariness becomes clear, Stephen's increasing emotionality helps to demonstrate humanity beyond this restrained matter of factness. George von Bergen's Sharpless is hard to hear, seemingly miscast in a role both too low and too big for his voice. Tonally the singing is fine, but it feels like listening to a someone using only the lower third of their range. As the performance goes on Bergen improves, warming into the role as he dutifully carries out his role in the emotional system enabling Butterfly's fantasies. A somewhat thankless role - both for a performer and as the best friend of Pinkerton!

The supporting cast for the production is solid if (acceptably) flat in their character choices. Alun Rhys-Jenkins serves as a reasonable Goro with a convincingly nasty portrayal, fitted well to Jones' relaxed Pinkerton. Catherine Young's Kate Pinkerton is inoffensive but misses the opportunity to leverage such a small role to force the tragedy one step further. She does, however, play well on the dichotomy between seemingly trying to be helpful but also being patronizing towards Butterfly. This more political side of her performance is indeed thought-provoking.

Despite this potential missed opportunity that might be a directorial issue, it is the direction, musically by conductor Gianluca Marcianò and on-stage by Sarah Tipple and originally Anthony Minghella, that truly stuns in this production. The basis for this is the set by Michael Levine, costumes by Han Feng, and lights by Peter Mumford. I had the opportunity to see this coproduction when it was broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera and it is even more beautiful in person. Yes, the use of people as flowers, Kate's presence at the end, and the strange representative dance at the beginning of Act II, Part 2 were failings, but overall the beauty of the production speaks beautifully to Japanese culture.

It incorporates many of the trappings of Bunraku theatre and connects the opera very clearly to Japan without demeaning its culture in a stereotypical way. The use of the shiny, black raked stage, moving screens, and the dark lighting highlighted by red really sets off the dramatic action and the costuming is powerful, with its use of traditional clothing and representative kimono unraveling on Butterfly. It is a production that is both evocatively deep and stunningly beautiful, masking its abstraction with perfectly fitting environments for each scene. The musical direction was both tasteful and gripping, with the very end of the production in perhaps the slowest tempo ever performed, creating a crushing emotional stasis as Butterfly bleeds out and Pinkerton realizes the horror for which he is responsible.


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