Oscar-winning film director Anthony Minghella brought the whole of his cinematic sensibility to bear on his only opera production, his celebrated 2005 staging of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly. Revived by the ENO for the fifth time, his Olivier Award winner is as visually ravishing as ever, a gorgeous widescreen spectacle. What occasionally jars are the theatrical devices he deployed, drawn from traditional Japanese theatre and puppetry, which serve to distance us from the fate of Puccini’s doomed teenage geisha at moments when we want to be emotionally overwhelmed.
Despite this, Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova’s vocally resplendent, fully committed performance as the heroine grabs you by the throat from the start. When George von Bergen’s American consul Sharpless says to his US naval lieutenant friend Pinkerton on the day of his wedding to the naïve Butterfly, ‘She really means it’, the words ring true. Yet Kuznetsova is such a powerful presence on stage that she makes it even harder than usual for us to swallow the fantasy that we are watching a frail and vulnerable 15-year-old.
Alongside her, Timothy Richards’s Pinkerton, with his pleasing but small tenor, appears more callow than callous, making the cruelty of his abandonment and rejection of Butterfly less potent. And Minghella’s original theatrical choices only add to the niggles. Casting a Japanese Bunraku puppet as Cio-Cio San’s young son is, admittedly, both daring and visually striking. Skilfully manipulated by three black-veiled, ninja-like puppeteers, he’s both eerie and poignant. Yet giving him a US flag to wave at the moment when Butterfly commits hara-kiri seems distractingly cynical.
All the same, when the stage is awash with cherry blossom or paper lanterns, it’s hard not to be seduced by the sheer beauty of Minghella’s staging. And, of course, Puccini’s score, performed with lushness and vibrancy under the baton of Italian conductor Gianluca Marcianò (making his ENO debut), remains exquisitely seductive. Jason Best