Three revivals in and not yet four years old, the late Anthony Minghella's visually ravishing Butterfly has already established itself as an ENO staple. It's an Olivier Award winner and a copper-bottomed crowd pleaser – a repertoire favourite re-thought and recreated with a sure eye for beauty, sweep and majesty. And puppets. But that's another matter.
This staging fully earns its gasps of delight and admiration. Every image is poetic, every idea is thrilling, and at every turn it encourages the spectator to reassess this over-familiar opera. If that reassessment is not always to the production's advantage, it is because Minghella (whose work is meticulously revived here by his wife and choreographer, Carolyn Choa) eschews Puccini's Verismo in favour of an ultra-stylised hymn to Japanese art. The result is a setting of ice-cold magnificence that neuters this febrile masterpiece, contradicting the music's ardour.
The tale of Cio-Cio-San, a naïve young geisha who is wooed for kicks by the selfish Lieutenant Pinkerton of the US Navy, then deserted by him and left to bear his child, is a heartbreaking story of passion and rejection, devotion and desperation. Alas, these intense qualities are all but stifled by the ritualised, precision-tooled stagecraft that unfolds on designer Michael Levine's sumptuously spare stage.
Throughout the production, composer and director appear to be pulling in opposite directions. The intensely erotic love duet at the close of Act One flounders in Minghella's interpretation: it is stunning to look at, but its passions run no deeper than a shower of rose petals. The protective maternal instinct is passion of another kind, of course, but that too is cancelled out by Minghella, this time through his decision to portray Butterfly's son via Bunraku puppetry (distractingly clever but never engaging) in preference to a flesh-and-blood child whose fragile humanity might touch the audience.
An additional alienating factor in this production is David Parry's translation. He has done a serviceable job, yet the English idiom and cadences are at odds with Minghella's stylised Japan at one extreme and with the music's overheated Italianate passions at the other. In Puccini, more than any other composer I can think of, the inflexions of his native language are an inextricable part of the musical vocabulary. Think of the frantic desire that colours Pinkerton's repeated ‘Vieni, vieni' during the aforementioned Act One duet: the words may be rendered into English, but the sexual urgency and yearning are lost in translation.
The Pinkerton of Bryan Hymel is not the jewel in this revival's crown anyway. His unappealing timbre and tight vibrato are an uneasy counterpart to Judith Howarth's subtly characterised, superbly sung Cio-Cio-San. His fellow American Brian Mulligan makes a far stronger impression as the US Consul, Sharpless, while Christine Rice is in glorious voice as Suzuki, Butterfly's maid. The minor roles are all exceptionally well taken, and Edward Gardner adds to his roster of masterly ENO performances by conducting a robustly unsentimental account of this most romantic of scores.
Notwithstanding its miscalculations, this Madam Butterfly offers a feast of splendours for both eyes and ears. Admittedly the eyes get silver while the ears get gold, but all the treasures dazzle.