Madam Butterfly, ENO at the Coliseum
After the horrors of its new Otello, it is a relief to report that this, the ninth revival of Graham Vick s classic production, restores my faith in ENO as being at the cutting edge of opera performance in this country. Not only is the production brilliantly rehearsed by Leah Hausman, but at fourteen years old, it still delivers an emotional punch to the audience.
Madam Butterfly was a total fiasco at its first performance in Milan in 1904, causing Puccini to make three revisions to the score. What we get here is a two act version which aims to be as faithful as possible to Puccini's original intentions, yet using some of the better parts of the revisions. It turns Pinkerton, the American sailor who marries Cio-Cio-San, into a complete and utter bastard intent on using her from the start. His motivation is pure greed, and the thought of him marrying the teenaged geisha becomes quite repulsive.
Knowing this, Butterfly's delusions about his integrity become all too painful to watch, especially as so movingly projected in the performance given by Cheryl Barker, singing the role for the first time in this country. From her first entrance, Barker exudes child-like charm, and the swiftness with which she throws away her Japanese culture to embrace everything American is alarmingly realised. Her singing is pure joy. Not heard at ENO since 1993, her soprano has taken on a thrilling spinto quality, which enables her to spin one glorious phrase after another.
In truth, this revival is worth catching for Barker alone. She allies her magnificent singing to an unutterably moving dramatic performance which ranks alongside the best Butterflys I have seen. More than once I reached for my hankie, and it is a long time since I have seen such a tear-splashed audience at the final curtain. Superb!
James Cornelison, making his European debut, sings a rather brash and wordless Pinkerton - it's fine looking the part, but not if you don't sound like an authentic tenor. I was unsure whether his curtain call boos were aimed at his singing or his despicable character. Christopher Booth-Jones is an excellent Sharpless, playing the poor helpless consul quite faultlessly. Christine Rice is an all too knowing Suzuki, who senses tragedy well before Butterfly does, and Alex Ingram conducts a perfectly idiomatic reading of this great score.
A brilliant revival. Instead of forking out money on tosh like Miss Saigon, invest in a couple of tickets to see the real thing.