Madam Butterfly, Coliseumm, London

Butterfly takes wondrous flight
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The Independent Culture

A young Japanese bride - a prototype of Butterfly herself - slowly appears over the distant horizon and makes her way downstage trailing crimson sashes from her kimono. A rising mirror lends infinite depth and breathtaking aerial perspectives. Shadowy figures, veiled in black as if already in mourning, bind her waist in preparation for the wedding. The ritual complete, Puccini at last does for the ear what Minghella has already done for the eye.

One might have expected this most refined and seductive of film-makers to have graced the Coliseum stage with a series of beautiful images. What one hadn't expected was his total command of that stage, his thorough appreciation of what makes opera fill it.

This Butterfly is at once the simplest and most sumptuous thing we've ever seen in this theatre. It is the meeting of Japanese kabuki and Western opera but shot through with the expensive air and finely tuned manner of a Broadway show. When Butterfly's wedding party arrives, it too rises over a turquoise horizon and processes downstage as if seen through a shimmering heat haze.

The voluptuous colours of Han Feng's costumes, Peter Mumford's high-tech lighting, and Michael Levine's floating mirror conspire to amaze. The inevitable shower of cherry blossom and corridors of lanterns lead Butterfly gently and seductively to the bedchamber. The imagery almost succeeds in out Puccini-ing Puccini.

And yet there is heart and soul and real dramatic awareness at work here. The opening of Act Two wrong-foots us with a short-lived scene of marital bliss as Butterfly serves tea to her adoring husband. It's a scene you imagine she replays daily. But like everything else in her rapidly crumbling world, it's a delusion. The husband retreats, along with the exquisite furniture, and she's left with what might have become his favourite armchair - and his son, "Sorrow".

It is here that the boldest and most controversial aspect of Minghella's staging - his use of puppetry - comes into its own. Instead of a child, three wonderful puppeteers breathe tangible life into a little Japanese doll in a sailor suit. The physical detail, the restless, excitable, mother-clinging actions and reactions are such that a child actor could never give us and after a while you stop noticing the puppeteers and, like Butterfly, you see only genuine emotion and need in the impassive doll-face.

This is extraordinary. And it is a measure of Mary Plazas' touching performance in the title role that she too makes the puppet real for us. We begin to see and feel the world through her sensibilities. Plazas may not possess what many believe to be the ideal Butterfly voice. Though big and vibrant for her tiny frame, the reach of the big phrases and the vocal reserves necessary to fill and fully extend them is not always quite within her grasp. But she is a musician through and through and her wealth of experience brings much that is personal and touching, not least the way end cadences melt away, now hopeful, now hopeless.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Pinkerton) got a couple of what I'm assuming were pantomime boos at the curtain call but though dry and a little shallow of tone, he delivered. Jean Rigby was a seasoned Suzuki, noble in her final indignation, and Christopher Perves was ringingly compassionate as the US Consul, Sharpless.

But the power and majesty of the evening belonged to Minghella and his associate director/choreographer Carolyn Choa. The final long-shot of Butterfly, the crimson sashes spilling from her body like her very life-blood, is one of many images that will be selling a lot of tickets for ENO in the months ahead.

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