Anthony Minghella's Madam Butterfly is a thing of petrified beauty. Rejecting the fad for an anti-Imperialist subtext, his first thesis is that Cio-Cio-San (Mary Plazas) is a victim of the exquisite rituals of Japanese culture. His second is that Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (Gwyn Hughes Jones) is a sex tourist de ses jours.
Laid out in a black lacquered box like a Victorian lepidopterist's specimen, the sheer volume of stiffened, stretched and sculpted silk on stage is fetishistic: an orgy of fuschia, coral, lime, gold, turquoise and ultramarine fans, kimonos and obis from designer Han Feng. Fetishistic too is the moment when Cio-Cio-San is slowly unwrapped from her heavy wedding robes and revealed as little more than a bony child. "Make love to me gently" she pleads in David Parry's crude translation. As she shivers against the impassive bulk of her greedy American lover, it seems as though Minghella is going to turn nasty. Then down come the cherry blossoms, up pop the paper lanterns, and you realise that you're meant to find this commercial deflowering romantic.
Glamorous as Minghella's elaborate exotica is, the touristic spectacle of lanterns, mirrors, screens and silks fights against the tight, cruel arc of Puccini's drama. Similar objections have been made to Minghella's too-beautiful films, but were Madam Butterfly a movie, he could metre the flow of visual motifs and focus on a glance or a word or a breath. In live theatre he has less control and lacks confidence in establishing and holding a moment. One paper moon is alluring. Eight is an Olympics pageant. What Minghella appears to have missed is that the story could equally well take place in Naples or Neath, and where Puccini individuates the Japanese characters, he homogenises them.
The score is in fact incredibly clear about ceremony versus intimacy, connection versus fracture, and there is little for a director to do but make the opera look good and make it matter. On the first count, Minghella succeeds - though the production would be stronger were the choreography halved and the lighting changes timed to correlate with the changing colours of the orchestration. On the second count, it is a failure.
Instead of sobbing at the arrival of Sorrow, Cio-Cio-San's son, I suppressed a squeak of revulsion. Without Sorrow, there would be no return and no suicide. But instead of a six year-old playing young - which is guaranteed to dissolve any parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and godparents in the audience - we have a wizened Bunraku puppet operated by three veiled extras. It is possible to admire the delicacy and skill of the puppeteers, but it is not possible to pity this child, to want to protect it, gather it in your arms, and prevent its mother's suicide. A beautifully sung Butterfly with a Bunraku puppet in every role might be moving. This isn't. Having dehumanised the most crucial character in the opera, Minghella's production has little emotional impact.
Though Plazas sings her tiny heart out, she lacks the shine and spin of a real Cio-Cio-San and is stymied by playing opposite three masked men and a paper baby. Her Pinkerton offers little more than flat-pack efficiency, and though Christopher Purves's troubled Sharpless and Jean Rigby's warm Suzuki have more fibre, they too are underdeveloped and fruitlessly battle the frigidity of David Parry's pettish conducting. I daresay Madam Butterfly will be a massive hit for English National Opera but my eyes remained dry, even when they were closed.
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