Now in its fifth revival at ENO, Anthony Minghella's production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly seems only to get stronger as time passes. It is certainly one of the best things ENO does, and its strength rests not only in its spectacular beauty but also in its ability to complement Puccini's music to the extent that you could almost believe that they were written together.
The production is still, even under revival director Sarah Tipple, stridently anti-American. As I have argued elsewhere, however, this is one of the production's greatest strengths in terms of recuperative value because it so frustrates the easy distinction between East and West.
Its use of Bankaru puppet theatre combined with artful choreography and cinematic sets make it unique in the current operatic canon.
Conductor Gianluca Marciano led the orchestra through Puccini's sumptuous melodic palette with gusto but more importantly gave renewed meaning to the modern interpretation of expansive Puccini. He allowed the singers enough rubato to extend the duration of their top notes, a quality that most performances of Italian opera these days lack considerably. It wasn't long ago that allowing the singers to take as much time as they liked with their top notes was common place: one need only listen to recordings from the boom in the 1950s and 60s. Somehow, though, this freedom of expression is lost in the industrialization of opera, so it was refreshing that it was back to give this performance both immediacy and life.
Dina Kuznetsova sang a heartfelt and emotionally charged Butterfly, however tentative she was in her initial entrances. Kuznetsova handles the music very well, and her slightly faster interpretation of "One fine day" ("Un bel di") suited both her capabilities and the dramatic situation at hand. Her diction is not as polished as one would like, however, and her Russian vowels appear jarring in the English translation. Nevertheless, she is a great singing actress: I was moved to tears during the second act as she brought out Sorrow for the first time and sang with a clarion beam to emotion into the house.
It was a pleasure to hear Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki again; she was every bit as emotive as her last appearance at ENO, and even somewhat more visceral this time. Her interpretation almost makes one wish that Suzuki had a slightly larger role. Stephen's chemistry with Kuznetsova was also excellent: the way they were looking at each other during the Humming Chorus was quite heartfelt.
Less impressive was Timothy Richards, whose Pinkerton was as vocally ineffective as his acting. His first aria ("Throughout the world, "Dovunque al mondo") was devoid of shine and had only nasal point, yet still not enough that it carried well. It's not that he doesn't have a certain sense of style; his Pinkerton simply lacks any real swagger and has none of the creepy interest in Butterfly he should or believable remorse once everything is over.
Luckily there was still a solid male voice to enjoy in the form of George von Bergen, who sang a secure and well-rounded Sharpless with a strong baritone. His diction did occasionally get lost in the depth of his sound but, if you ask me, this is a good problem to have if you are a singer.
The Goro of Alun Rhys-Jenkins was perfectly annoying and well sung, while Mark Richardson's Bonze was suitably bombastic.
Overall, Minghella's production is still a magical night at ENO. Don't miss it.
Photos: English National Opera