'Madam Butterfly' – English National Opera
Since its debut in 2005, Anthony Minghella's Olivier Award winning production of ‘Madam Butterfly’ has been revived several times. It returns once more to the Coliseum for 14 performances until the 1 December. This production is markedly different from other productions of Puccini’s opera thanks to its unique cinematic visuals, the elegant dance interludes and the fitting use of puppetry, courtesy of Blind Summit.
Peter Mumford’s colourful lighting design and the functional, austere set of Michael Levine makes it a visual feast. However, what really sets it apart is the puppetry, and a group of nine dancers who illustrate the plot and manipulate the scenery like puppeteers. The production opens with the striking image of a geisha in shadow, dancing against a red background. Slowly, the lights come up and the music begins.
Madam Butterfly descends a sloped stage while her image is reflected on the mirror-like slanted ceiling. Four more dancers, veil-faced and all clad in black, seem to control the geisha's movements, forecasting her tragic death. After this opening, more black costumed bodies wheel the wooden Japanese panels into place, which set the first scene. The lights change and the story begins. This introduction is highly evocative, and it captures the beautiful essence of the opera while anticipating the tragedy.
The dancer/puppeteers’ bodies – shadowy figures that figuratively manipulate the threads of the tragedy – are one of the most captivating elements in this production. And references to puppetry are constant throughout, both physically and conceptually, giving the opera a whole new dimension.
Indeed, Cio-Cio-San is nothing more than a play-thing, a doll in the manipulative hands of her false husband. The second act offers one of the most beautiful and emotional scenes – the 'dream dance', where the tragic destiny is again foretold and staged by the dancers and a puppet replica of Cio-Cio-San. The little bunraku puppet is exquisite, and when it dances and glides across the stage with utter grace, it exposes all the fragility of the character.
It is also a bunraku-style puppet that plays the part of Sorrow, Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton's child. The boy is revealed in the second act, after the United States consul brings Cio-Cio-San the letter of Pinkerton saying he is not coming back. The sudden appearance of the puppet makes the whole revelation of its existence even more powerful.
This life-size puppet is skilfully manipulated by Tom Espiner, Julia Innocenti and Laura Caldow, all dressed and veiled in black. Its movements are so expressive, so child-like and innocent, that it is impossible to take your eyes off it. The puppet-boy embodies all the qualities that the character needs, without the unnatural acting that can sometimes be displayed by child actors cast in this role.
The value of this production resides in its spectacular and accomplished mis-en-scene and its powerful visual imagery, offering a truly pleasurable aesthetic experience.
Co-produced by ENO with the Metropolitan Opera, New York and Lithuanian National Opera.