Wednesday 9 May 2012

Madame Butterfly @ ENO

One of the challenges of directing opera is finding something novel in a piece of art centuries old.  As a result, modern opera directing can sometimes aim for extravagance and unusual set design to the detriment of the story, acting as a barrier between the audience and understanding.

What's so refreshing about ENO's revival of Anthony Minghella's award winning production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly is its clarity.  The focus here is less on creative design and more on intimacy of character, lucidity of plot and, as every production should, Puccini's rich, colourful score.  The English translation, sung with excellent diction by all, is concise and easy to follow, to the point where the schoolchildren in the audience (this being the dress rehearsal) booed Pinkerton when he bowed.  This only proves the engaging nature of the production.

The creative design is in direct contrast to last year's production at the Royal Albert Hall.  Where that production flooded the stage, lights glittering off the shimmering surface, this production at ENO is minimal and simplistic.  The monochromatic staging, with its black lacquered surfaces and sliding paper screens, keeps focus on the plot, whilst the costumes come alive with colours and fabrics (if a little cartoonish).  Particularly effective is the Act 1 duet, performed in almost total darkness besides paper lanterns and a curtain of falling cherry blossoms.  The aesthetic is stunning.

Elsewhere, the staging feels a little too minimal, with creativity compensated for clarity.  At times the production is too static, though the music is assuredly enough to hold the audience's attention.  Other elements could have been expanded upon more fully, such as the origami birds, the expressive dance and the decision to use a puppet for Butterfly's son.

However, the real focus of the opera is the titular Madame Butterfly.  Gwyn Hughes Jones shines as F.B Pinkerton with his sweet high tones and a well nuanced performance of an American lost in a foreign land.  Yet the production belongs to the tiny stature of Mary Plazas as Butterfly, a naive girl clinging to blind love and faith.  Plazas sings with extraordinary control, her voice delicate enough for the teenager's fragility, yet powerful enough to deliver heart wrenching emotion.

And this is the crux of the opera - a tragic tale of love, death and ensnared, youthful beauty.  Whether extravagant or simple, the setting only highlights the beauty of Puccini's work.


Madame Butterfly is performed at the Coliseum from 8th May to the 2nd June.

Also check out the audience reaction trailer, featuring yours truly!