Madame Butterfly , ENO

So much depends upon Peter Mumford’s stunning lighting design which in
the opening moments floods Minghella’s cinematic vista with the fiery red
of the rising sun against which a geisha’s silhouette curves and bends in
elegant pirouettes and graceful bows, her folding-fan catching the sun’s
gold as it flutters like a butterfly wing. Mumford’s colours are
stirringly vibrant but, paradoxically, shift subtly from hue to hue. Acidic
orange fades to an apricot which mutates to dusky rose, then deepens through
cerise to purple: it is as if we are sliding through a shimmering rainbow, an
oxymoronic fusion of intensity and insubstantiality.

Above the stage a shiny dark slope hangs, lacquer-black, hazily and
suggestively reflecting the shifting movements and colours below — like a
liquid mirror. Mumford illuminates Han Feng’s glorious rich-coloured and
glossy textured costumes with searing intensity. When day turns to night, the
preciousness and fragility of Pinkerton’s and Cio-Cio-San’s
delusory dreaming at the end of Act 1 is evoked by the raindrops of
blush-tintedsakura petals which float down between the drifting paper
lantern-domes, forming trailing fronds of starlight — reminiscent of the
hannabi displays so familiar of Japanese summer nights. At the close,
the burning crimson returns: as Butterfly commits ritual self-sacrifice, the
trains of her kimono, with which the black-clad dancers of Blind Sight
encircle and bind her at the opening, now unravel like streams of blood,
drowning all in guilt and repentance.

The visual opulence made even more impact than I remembered from my previous
viewings. As the characters entered from the rear via the crest of designer
Michael Levine’s sharply sloping stage, the nation’s culture of
regal ceremony and ritual was powerfully intimated. The sliding shoji
swept across the minimalist stage forming countless spatial permutations, like
the screens of a magician who deftly tricks us with his optical illusions and

The dancers and puppeteers of Blind Summit were also even more
hypnotic and dexterous than I remembered, pulsing and swirling with a dangerous
energy (choreography is by Carolyn Choa). The mime-dance at the start of Act 2
Scene 2 where a fan/knife makes ambiguous patterns in the air, foreshadowing
Butterfly’s suicide, was compelling and disquieting.

Moreover, the intimations aroused by the extraordinarily sensitive
manipulations of the bunraku puppet which embodies Butterfly’s
child, Swallow, were truly affecting — highly nuanced and allusive. Tiny
footsteps suggested both animation and the unsteadiness of youthful feet; a
backwards glance at his mother conveyed an unquestioning love and trust as the
child stumbled towards the out-stretched hand of the American Consul. Moreover
where I previously found the uncanny veracity of the marionette rather
distancing and alien, now the ‘strangeness’ seemed to perfectly
convey the clash of cultures. Cio-Cio-San has declared her allegiance to her
husband’s United States of America and invites the Consul her house
— a tiny part of ‘home’ in this ‘foreign’ land
— proudly and defiantly revealing her blue-eyed child. But, the
stylisation of the puppet’s movements belies the sailor-suit he wears: he
is exotic, Japanese, a literal representation of that culture’s
traditions and values.

It was a pity, then, that the cast’s achievements were so mixed. In
the title role, American soprano Rena Harms was a surprisingly confident
— and at times coquettish — fifteen-year-old in Act 1. I have lived
in Japan and I have yet to see a Japanese woman laugh without turning her face
and covering her mouth, but this young geisha was full of self-possession,
aware of her own charm. This Butterfly really was more American than Japanese.
Harms’ soprano is fairly light and when challenged to rise above the ENO
orchestra — who were encouraged to play with rather too much enthusiasm
and force at times by conductor Sir Richard Armstrong — her voice
acquired a slightly hard edge and astringency. More spinto strength
was needed — such as was exhibited by Stephanie Windsor-Lewis who was a
sympathetic Suzuki — so that the dramatic climaxes could be conquered
without strain. A Romantic fullness would have benefitted ‘One fine
day’, where the instrumental doubling tended to obscure the vocal line in
the lower registers. Disappointing, too, was Harms’ diction: scarcely a
consonant was audible and vowels were oddly distorted — the surtitles
which should be redundant in a house which prides itself on performing in
English were absolutely essential. The only, partial saving grace was that one
was not distracted by the inappropriate intonation and tone of the English
language within this Italianate idiom.

The same could not be said of David Butt Philip whose F.B. Pinkerton was the
epitome of RP. In fact, so elevated in style and tone was his diction that he
was more reserved English gentleman than swaggering Yankee. But, he sang with
consistently stylish phrasing and, though his tenor is not a big voice, was
able to project without vocal tension.

This Pinkerton seemed bewildered at how such things had come to pass. Taken
together with Harms’ assertiveness, this altered the tragic dynamic
between the protagonists and between Butterfly and her environment. Pinkerton
was less a villain than a naïve romantic, too immature to reflect on
consequences; Butterfly less a victim than a misguided dreamer, desperate to
assume the regalia of Pinkerton’s idealised fantasy.

When I heard George von Bergen in the role of the American Consul Sharpless
in 2013 I was not overly impressed, finding him resonant but lacking in focus,
dramatically and vocally. On this occasion, he was the leading light. Singing
with excellent diction and real vocal warmth, his compassion and contrition
when confronted with Butterfly’s unwavering faith and love was utterly
convincing, and more affecting in the light of his earlier complicity in
Pinkerton’s colonial presumption.

Alun Rhys-Jenkins reprised his Goro of 2013 but while his phrasing and tone
were engaging, I found this marriage broker less vivacious and mischievous than
at the previous hearing. Matthew Durkan was a noble Prince Yamadori but his
implorings did not equal the majesty of his ceremonial attire. Mark Richardson,
also returning to the production, made a menacing impression as The Bonze,
Butterfly’s fierce uncle. Samantha Price sang confidently as Kate

Overall, whatever the unevenness in the casting, this Butterfly is
worth catching for the ocular sumptuousness and gratification that it supplies
in to heady excess.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Cio-Cio-San — Rena Harms, Suzuki — Stephanie
Windsor-Lewis, Pinkerton — David Butt Philip, Sharpless — George
van Bergen, Goro — Alun Rhys-Jenkins, Prince Yamadori — Matthew
Durkan, The Bonze — Mark Richardson, Yakuside — Philip Daggett,
Kate Pinkerton — Samantha Price, Imperial Commissioner — Paul
Napier-Burrows, Official Registrar — Roger Begley, Cio-Cio-San’s
Mother — Natalie Herman, Cousin — Morag Boyle, Aunt — Judith
Douglas, Sorrow — Laura Caldow, Tom Espiner, Irena Stratieva; director
— Anthony Minghella (revival director — Sarah Tipple), associate
director/choreographer — Carolyn Choa (revival choreographer —
Anita Griffin), set designer — Michael Levine, lighting designer —
Peter Mumford (revival lighting designer — Ian Jackson-French), costume
designer — Han Feng, Orchestral and Chorus of English National Opera,
puppetry — Blind Summit Theatre, Mark Down & Nick
Barnes. English National Opera at the London Coliseum, Wednesday
18th May 2016.

image_description=Rena Harms as Madama Butterfly and David Butt Philip as Pinkerton [Photo © Tom Bowles]
product_title=Madame Butterfly , ENO
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Rena Harms as Madama Butterfly and David Butt Philip as Pinkerton [Photo © Tom Bowles]