The late Anthony Minghella's glacially superficial, yet visually arresting staging of Puccini's Madama Butterfly has returned for another run of performances at the ENO. It seems like only yesterday since the last revival, but given that the opera going public have hardly been flocking to either of this autumn's new productions (the hideous Fidelio and the obtuse Fledermaus), no doubt the management are hoping that this crowd-pleasing show will line the company's dwindling coffers.
They certainly need bums on seats, and if this widely admired version of Butterfly fails to deliver, then there's something seriously wrong going on in St Martin's Lane. I must state from the off that I've never been a fan of Minghella's take on Puccini's oriental tearjerker (revived here by Sarah Tipple). He fatally misjudged the piece, for what it most emphatically is not is a Japanese opera that requires layer upon layer of alienation by drafting in elements of Kabuki theatre. The black-clad figures get in the way, not only obscuring the action but fatally diluting the drama and the emotion, and by replacing Cio-Cio San's child with a wooden puppet totally robs the second half of the opera of any pathos.
Having said that - visually it remains breathtaking. Peter Mumford's lighting, Michael Levine's sets and Han Feng's costumes fuse together, creating some of the most gorgeous stage-pictures to be seen in the capital, which makes the lopsided dramaturgy all the more infuriating.
Musically, the performance was a bit of a mixed bag as well, with the only unqualified success being Pamela Helen Stephen's faultlessly acted and vocally lustrous Suzuki. Always a vivid singing-actress, her understanding of the developing tragedy was indelibly etched into her very being. As Cio-Cio San the Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova coped heroically with the vocal challenges (this is one of the longest roles in all Italian opera) Puccini throws her way and used her voluminous soprano to telling effect. Only on occasion did it turn hard under pressure, but that's no doubt down to the fact that there's a lot of mettle in the voice, yet despite this she was capable of producing plenty of mellifluous tone especially in ‘One fine day' and her suicide scene. She also managed to get more of David Parry's English translation across than the remainder of the cast put together. Altogether this was an impressive company debut.
The men fared less well. Pinkerton's caddishness was lost on Welsh tenor Timothy Richards who cut a benign, middle-aged figure on stage; more a bank manager from the Shires as opposed to a ruthless sex-tourist (or arguably a paedophile – Cio-Cio-San is only fifteen after all) and his voice was a couple of notches too small for the Coliseum as well. As Sharpless George von Bergen was too blustery and hectoring, but surely he's too young to be singing this role anyway?
In the pit Gianluca Marcinao conducted with sweep and passion, but in the process his broad brush-strokes blurred too many of Puccini's intricate orchestrations, and he was rewarded with robust playing from the orchestra.