Puccini’s Madam Butterfly is one of the world’s most celebrated operatic achievements. First performed over a century ago in 1904 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, it was later revised that year and turned into a three-act version which stands to this day. It is a story so heartbreaking that whilst many will likely not be able to empathise with the tragic events that unfold around the protagonist, they will sympathise. Madam Butterfly is based, in part, on an 1898 novel by John Luther Long and inspired the hit musical, Miss Saigon which returns to London’s West-End next year. This is its fifth revival with ENO and whilst originally directed by Oscar-winning Anthony Minghella, this revival has been brought to life for the second time by Sarah Tipple, best known for her most recent work on the sell-out Dirty Dancing musical.
This production reaches way beyond the vocal talent: aesthetically it is just spectacular. The combination of lighting, set and costume have created total unified perfection, ensuring that long after seeing this, you’ll remain awestruck and singing its praises to anybody who’ll listen.
Madam Butterfly centres on a young Japanese geisha who falls in love with and marries an American naval officer posted in her country. He returns to the US and though he is gone three years, she refuses to accept the fact that he no longer wants her and waits for him. This is perhaps one of the most heartbreaking tales of unrequited love ever told.
ENO has joined forces with other creative forces including Blind Summit, an expert puppeteer company, which captures Butterfly and Pinkerton’s child perfectly. Using puppets and their human manipulators on stage could very easily become a distraction for the audience but when it is done with such ease, grace and professionalism, as Blind Summit does here, it is enchanting.
The cast, with particular reference to soprano Dina Kuznetsova as Cio-Cio San (AKA Madam Butterfly) and Pamela Helen Stephen as her loyal maid Suzuki are truly wondrous. Stephen acts the part with a combination of fierce loyalty and hostility, and her duet with Kuznetsova is a ‘wow’ moment. Kuznetsova’s Madam Butterfly starts off as a timid yet confident teenager, turning into a determined and ultimately broken young woman. Her performance, particularly in the latter part of Act Two and Act Three is an exhausting and draining one, and it is apparent, albeit in a good way, that it takes everything she has to achieve it. The final moments are some of the most beautiful.
This production couldn’t have achieved what it has without the undeniably talented set, lighting and costume designers: Michael Levine, Peter Mumford and Han Feng respectively. Everything here is just exactly how it should be, from the strip of colour at the back of the stage representing seasonal changes, to the way the lights reflect, casting eerie glows of the characters on the floor. Everything an audience could expect is here. Madam Butterfly has to be seen to be believed. This is a timeless classic that would make a remarkable first time for those who’ve yet to experience opera. It would be ridiculous to put every synonym for beautiful here but that is what this deserves.
Madam Butterfly is playing at the London Coliseum until December 1 2013. For more information and tickets, see the English National Opera’s website. Photo by Thomas Bowles.