Madam Butterfly, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2016

Anthony Minghella’s hugely successful Butterfly production, which the Metropolitan Opera in New York has broadcast to cinemas around the world, could hardly come at a better time for the ENO. Cinema screenings are one thing, but live in the London Coliseum is an experience not to be missed, and this revival under the superb baton of Richard Armstrong, conducting his first Puccini opera for the ENO, was an evening to remember.

All images ENO/ Tom Bowles

As Butterfly herself, Rena Harms was touchingly expressive in Act 1, her hope and conviction sung with real feeling in Act 2, and with high voltage emotional power backed by hidden depths in the orchestra during Act 3. Her early duet was beautifully sung with David Butt Philip’s Pinkerton, whose lovely line in lyrically romantic persuasiveness served to underline the callowness of this naval officer’s narcissism. Three cheers for George von Bergen’s sensitive portrayal of the American Consul, Sharpless, and a wonderful performance by Stephanie Windsor-Lewis as Butterfly’s maid Suzuki, showing huge sadness and sympathy in her body language.

Young lovers

Young lovers

Awaiting Daddy's return

Awaiting Daddy’s return

For those who have not seen the production, the mime, the puppets, and the magic with moving screens bring out the artifice of a world that is never quite what it seems, and the pathos of a story that Puccini himself first saw in London as a play, without fully comprehending the words. In one sense words do not matter, but hearing it in English helps remind one of details otherwise forgotten. Butterfly reveals that she is a mere fifteen years old, and the ceremonial knife she keeps in its sheath was given by the emperor to her late father so that he could fulfil his duty as a loyal subject. His daughter, his only child, is a tragedy in the making, ready to defy her ancestors and take on the nationality of her beloved American husband. As Sharpless warns Pinkerton, she takes the marriage terribly seriously.

In the end Butt Philip’s Pinkerton shows abject remorse, even though he flees from an encounter with his ex-lover, Windsor-Lewis’s Suzuki expresses powerful agony, and Butterfly reaches beyond life itself before her suicide. I had forgotten the dance of death in this production, which helps alleviate the sentimentality that sometimes emerges from the orchestra pit — though not under the baton of Richard Armstrong who infused Puccini’s music with a power and emotional punch that knocked me sideways.

Performances continue until July 7 — for details click here.

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