Tuesday 22 October 2013

Madama Butterfly, English National Opera, 21 October 2013

(sung in English)

Cio-Cio San – Mary Plazas
Suzuki – Pamela Helen Stephen
Pinkerton – Timothy Richards
Sharpless – George van Bergen
Goro – Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Prince Yamadori – Alexander Robin Baker
The Bonze –Mark Richardson
Yakuside – Philip Daggett
Imperial Commissioner – Paul Napier-Burrows
Official Registrar – Roger Begley
Mother – Natalie Herman
Aunt –Judith Douglas
Cousin – Morag Boyle
Kate Pinkerton – Catherine Young

Anthony Minghella (director)
Sarah Tipple (revival director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Hang Feng (costumes)
Peter Mumford (lighting)
Blind Summit Theatre (puppetry)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Gianluca Marciano (conductor)

Many readers will doubtless already have seen the late Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly, now revived by Sarah Tipple, whether at the Coliseum, at the Met, or even in Vilnius.  This, however, was my first viewing, and I found it rather impressive. There is any number of ways in which one might in performance respond to Puccini’s deeply problematical orientalism, though simply failing to do so and reproducing or rather vulgarising it is surely no longer an option, if ever it really were. Minghella’s staging, aided immensely by the rest of his collaborative team, offers a convincing blend of abstraction, stylisation, and moments through which more conventional, if highly disturbing, emotion, may flow like blood – or like the scarlet, silken banners unfurled by actors and dancers. The relative abstraction of Michael Levine’s versatile set designs focuses our attention upon the drama rather than irrelevant incidentals. In a relationship that partakes in contrast and complementarity, the ‘beauty’ – I affix inverted commas, since Western eyes will doubtless perceive such things rather differently from Japanese eyes, and in any case, no group sees everything in the same manner – of Hang Feng’s ‘Oriental’ costumes reminds us that there should be a degree of alienation as well as seduction and sympathy to our response. Whatever the sins in which this opera indulges – and in many respects, racist, sexist, etc., it seems to tick almost every box – that is of nothing when compared with a modern opera audience treating it in unquestioning fashion.  Ultimately, that remains our responsibility, but a production can help or hinder; this does the former. Even the fall of darkness and emergence of the stars at the end of the first act, ‘beautifully’ accomplished according to any understanding, both draws one in and holds one slightly distanced, in a sense thus making one all the more dangerously susceptible both to Puccini’s brazenly manipulative genius and to knowledge of that manipulation. If it would be exaggerated to compare him to Strauss in terms of sophistication, the effect and to a certain extent the technique are not entirely dissimilar either.

The lack of realism, or perhaps the theatricality that goes beyond realism, of Japanese puppetry makes a great impression in that sense too. On one level, it is a sensible theatrical solution to the problem of what to do with a small child. Yet to have Sorrow as a puppet, visibly manipulated by some of the mysterious, dark shrouded figures who intermittently populate the stage also heightens our sense of the clash between artificiality and a crude, manipulative, yet highly potent emotionalism that would collapse into mere sentimentality if any of us were not careful. To have those figures’ dance of death suggest during Cio-Cio San’s  suicide an outpouring of daemons – perhaps both hers and ours – furthers the ambiguity  we require as a defence to the undeniable, dangerous power of the score’s close.

At that point, conductor, Gianluca Marciano and the ENO Orchestra pull out all the stops – as of course does Puccini himself. There were times earlier on when it was difficult not to feel the lack of a more incisive musical mind at work in the pit; sometimes, the music floated along a little too amiably. Yet even when the performance is more that of a Kapellmeister than a great conductor, the niggling difficulties of the score – modernist, Wagnerian, orientalist – have a way of continuing to insinuate themselves.

The cast for the most part made the best of an unenviable job of singing Puccini in English. Timothy Richards’s Pinkerton was, alas, something of a blemish, though language was not here the problem. Rather, he lacked vocal or stage allure; one can believe up to an extent in an unprepossessing American officer relying upon the force of an occupying power to have his way, but it cannot be entirely that. (His pantomime encouragement of the audience to boo him at the end was, moreover, quite out of keeping with the sensibility of work and production.) Mary Plazas, despite a few shaky moments – perhaps most notably, her very first line, and then the first line of ‘Un bel di, vedremo’ – offered a sympathetic, highly involving performance in the title role. Pamela Helen Stephen’s Suzuki was warmly sympathetic too; one felt her protectiveness, her love, and indeed her intelligence. George van Bergen made for a tortured – in a good sense! – Sharpless, his humanity contrastingly strongly with Pinkerton’s cowardice. And though her role may be small, Catherine Young made as close to a three-dimensional impression of Kate Pinkerton as one has any right to expect: sensible, concerned, and in a sense as ‘other’ as the other wife she faced. Various of the other smaller roles were well taken, in a performance that benefited from a fine sense of ensemble.