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Puccini and Puppets: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

By Greg Last edited 135 months ago
Puccini and Puppets: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together
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After a tearful Popstarz on Friday, Londonist had a very operatic weekend, with the premiere of Anthony Minghella's new staging of Madame Butterfly at the English National Opera on Saturday, and Opera Rara's one-off unstaged performance of Donizetti's Il diluvio universale on Saturday.

This is not the place for a detailed review of the Opera Rara event, since it's too late to tell you to go to it, and if even if we could... well, let's just say it was an evening for connoisseurs. That having been said, we enjoyed it immensely. First because of what was going on onstage: we could quibble, but basically we heard absurdly good singing: a mezzo (Manuela Custer) with a downright scary chest voice who appears to have been borrowing her look from Donatella Versace; a steely-voiced soprano (Majella Callagh) pretending to be struck dead by a lightning bolt while wearing an evening gown; singers indicating that they are drowning by looking up at the sky and making subtle swimming gestures... all during an opera about Noah's flood, with an extra love triangle sub-plot and "orgy of Tartars" thrown in to spice things up. (No, seriously...) This was high camp in the best possible way.

Just as entertaining, however, was the audience. Opera Rara only produces operas that are almost never produced elsewhere, so if you are a fanatical opera fan, you simply have to come to the performance or risking never seeing Il diluvio universale ever, whether you live in Basel or Buenos Aires. We were overcome with the sense, during the interval, that we were surrounded by famous people. Spotted: renowned Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm! More than one famous singer! A few Covent Garden administrators! A scene, darlings, a scene...

The Butterfly the night before was, let us admit from the start, not even close to the same level vocally. While everyone on stage could basically sing the notes, no one was actually impressive. And Mary Plazas in the title role, although she has a effective musical intelligence and is a fine actress, has a voice that just isn't very big — a particular problem in the rather cavernous Coliseum. Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton fared only a little better. Also, the principal singers and the conductor David Parry need to simply sit down and decide who is in charge at the big vocal climaxes — the coordination between singer and orchestra fell apart at nearly every one (although this may well have been just an opening night problem).

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We hear that the critics are divided, but in our opinion Anthony Minghella's direction was superb, and those that criticise the production for being "too pretty" are both puritanical and blind. From its motivating concept to it minute details, the staging decisions served the drama while remaining, at every moment, gorgeous to look at. The whole evening worked so well, on almost every level, that we eventually completely forgot the musical weaknesses of the evening, and that when there was a detail of his staging that we didn't quite "get" (why are those dancers appearing at the back of the stage?) we were more than willing to go along with him.

The test of a Madame Butterfly production is the staging of the Act 1 duet. By this point in the opera, the audience is already aware that, however the work ends, this is a very ugly story: the title character is a fifteen-year-old girl who has been forced into quasi-prostitution by her family's disgrace. Before you can say "paedo shock," an American soldier twice her age has purchased her, although she remains blissfully deluded that he actually loves her. The duet comes at the end of the act, during twenty minutes of excruciatingly beautiful music we hear a fifteen-year-old lose her virginity. If the staging makes this moment seem like a bog-standard operatic seduction scene, then we risk losing sight of the horror of what's being portrayed. If the director presents a straightforward rape, then the director seems deaf to the music and blind to its dramatic complexities.

Minghella's duet manages this tightrope walk perfectly: the stage, filled with a falling curtain of flower petals borrowed from kabuki tradition and paper lanterns representing both the stars and fireflies mentioned in the text, places the action in the realm of fantasy — both Butterfly's and Pinkerton's — while the fear and pain on Plazas's face and physical dominance of Hughes-Jones's gestures leave us in no doubt as to the power dynamics of the situation. As the seduction is at last consummated, the singers are concealed behind a billowing blue cloth, recalling Butterfly's wedding sash, the sea from which Pinkerton arrived and into which he will disappear, and the blood that will eventually pour out of her body at her suicide.

We've dwelt on this one moment in the hope of communicating how rich in detail, how meticulously thought-though, this production is throughout. Most reactions, we suspect, will focus on more superficial aspects of the show: its reference to traditional Japanese dance and theater, and especially its use of puppets in the style of classical Japanese bunraku. This is perhaps less innovative and interesting as a concept than it may at first seem. Any number of productions of this opera have attempted to make similar conceptual allusions. What needs to be stressed is how beautiful, intelligent, and viscerally affecting Minghella has made these ideas in execution.

We almost don't want to describe the puppets too much, since we went into the evening not expecting them, and so their sheer dramatic power was that much more astounding. But believe us: the way the puppets are manipulated, and the was the human performers relate to them onstage create a totally unique theatrical effect. When, during the "dream ballet" interpolated into the opening of Act 3, the puppet representing Butterfly clutches with desperation at the departing Pinkerton, we heard an audible gasp go up around us.

There is so much to praise about this staging: the ravishingly beautiful costumes by the haute-couture designer Han Feng, who had never designed theatrical costumes before, and managed to create outfits that reference nineteenth-century Japan just enough, while also feeling glamorously contemporary; the subtle lighting by Peter Mumford which employed those cool robotic-arm spotlights to maximum effect; the spare set by Michael Levine that could utterly change the character of the performance space in an instant. But you can see all these things for yourself: there are only eleven performance left... get your tickets now.

Madame Butterfly closes December 13. £10 day tickets and £5 standing room tickets are available at 10am at the Coliseum box office on the day of the performance. Book online here. Production photo by ENO/Presson Photograph from here

Last Updated 08 November 2005