Madam Butterfly, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2012

Anthony Minghella died four years ago, but his wonderful English National Opera production of Madam Butterfly lives on. Created in 2005 it attracted huge acclaim and won the Olivier Award for best new opera production.

Death at the end, all images Clive Barda

Those who attend live relays from the Metropolitan Opera in New York may have seen it in the cinema in 2009, but it’s better in the theatre so if you live anywhere near London go to the Coliseum. If theatre is anything to do with visual imagery, and it surely is, then the clever set designs by Michael Levine, the glorious costumes by Han Feng, and the fabulous lighting by Peter Mumford are a treat not to be missed. Excellent choreography by Minghella’s wife Carolyn Choa, along with the very clever use of puppetry, make this an unbeatable Butterfly production. Not only is Butterfly’s little son a puppet, but she looks on in Act III as a puppet of herself is manipulated by forces she can’t control.

Act I wedding

Mary Plazas gave a beautiful portrayal of Butterfly, with Gwyn Hughes Jones singing strongly in the thankless role of US Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton, particularly in Act III. Though his full name is Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, she refers to him as F.B.Pinkerton, and in my view he’s more of an FB than a BF. The US consul Sharpless has explained several times that she is taking this marriage in deadly earnest, but the hedonistic young naval man couldn’t give a monkey’s. Only in Act III is he finally sorry, singing with conviction, “I’m a coward, I am weak”, but it’s too late.

John Fanning sang with real feeling as Sharpless, and Pamela Helen Stephen came over very sympathetically as Butterfly’s maid Suzuki, both of them joining the main characters from the cast of 2005. This was excellent team-work under revival director Sarah Tipple, with musical direction by Oleg Caetani in the orchestra pit. His light touch yielded emphasis at the right moments, though I missed some of the emotional swell to this music.

The Butterfly puppet

Puppetry by the Blind Summit Theatre was excellent, and the whole cast, including those black-clad figures personifying the forces of Japanese tradition, moved beautifully in time with the music. And if you need some background to Puccini’s extraordinary take on Japanese culture, see the interesting article by Adrian Mourby in the programme.

Performances continue until June 2 — for details click here.

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