The late Anthony Minghella’s award-winning staging of Madam Butterfly returns to the Coliseum with the two main principals from the original run seven years ago reprising their roles – Mary Plazas as Cio-Cio San and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton. Although revived several times since then, I hadn’t returned to this staging since it was new. Why? Because I hated it. Back in 2005 I found it glacial and superficial, especially as memories of Graham Vick’s gritty staging that had served ENO well throughout the nineties, were indelibly printed on my mind. Its successor, I thought, lacked substance and more importantly a heart.
Well that was then. This time round I found it far more palatable. For one, it’s breathtakingly beautiful to look at. Bathed in Peter Mumford’s exquisite lighting, Michael Levine’s designs and Han Feng’s costumes create some of the most enchanting stage pictures to be seen on operatic stage, and this revival’s director, Sarah Tipple, draws committed performances from the entire cast.
The title role is a big sing – indeed it’s one of the most arduous roles in Italian opera and whilst the diminutive soprano Mary Plazas cuts an undeniably tragic figure on stage, there’s no hiding the fact that at times the strain on her voice becomes audible. She husbands her resources well, is heart-breaking in the more introspective moments, but lacks metal in the voice, so is unable to ride the climaxes as Puccini requires.
Gwyn Hughes Jones sounds properly Italian as Pinkerton, phrases musically and has the necessary ‘ping’ when required. Although it’s an ungrateful role he still manages to evoke some sympathy for the character.
There’s solid support from Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki and Michael Colvin as Goro, but John Fanning fails to stamp his authority on the role of Sharpless and much of his singing sounds dry and rough hewn.
In the pit the Oleg Caetani conducts a thrilling account of the work, and the orchestra plays its collective heart out, although given that his two principals have relatively light voices, there seems to be little adjustment on his part to accommodate them.
Given the general excellence of the musical side of things, and the fact that I had warmed to the staging, by the close I still felt unmoved. A fact I can only put down to the decision to use a wooden puppet to represent Cio-CIo San’s son – it’s become the equivalent of Marmite in the operatic world. For me, despite the deft handling by Blind Summit Theatre, it looks naff and totally out of place. I hate it. Get rid of ‘woody’, and the unnecessary interval in the middle of Act Two (a real tension-killer), and this would be a faultless staging.