You could plot it yourself: randy US lieutenant has an affair with an Asian babe in wartime, it means more to her than it does to him, her family shuns her and when he goes back to the States, she’s dumped and broke and literally holding the baby. In other formats or other wars, you can see it set to music in South Pacific, Privates on Parade, the brand new From Here to Eternity and topically Miss Saigon – directly based on Butterfly – awaiting its big London revival next May.
But nowhere is it set to better music than in Giacomo Puccini’s 100-year-old rich and cinematic score blending American anthems like the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ with marching band brass, oriental airs and Italianate lyricism. And in ENO’s breathtakingly-staged revival, nowhere is it more colourful and vivid.
Rising suns, waving fans, origami cranes and paper lanterns set the Japanese scene but in Michael Levine and Peter Mumford’s dramatic design the stage may be suddenly liquid with blood red light, or the chorus appear on a black lacquer background in kimonos of vivid pattern and the supersaturated tones of Anime comics: every single scene is optically arresting.
The visual energy is built up continuously with balletic scene changes and puppetry in the Japanese Bunraku tradition including the figure of Butterfly’s baby son animated by three silhouetted puppeteers and who manages to appear by turns touching and creepy.
Operatic purists may find this an unbalanced production in which the women vocally outrank the men: Dina Kuznetsova is a musically robust Butterfly, her singing is stunning but occasionally she looks more like Morticia Addams than a 15-year old Asiatic waif. Lt Pinkerton is played by an eerily quiet Timothy Richards who plucks constantly at his ill-fitting naval uniform to drape it over his ample frame and highlights more than in other productions the sleazy truth that an unappealing American sailor has ‘bought’ a pliant Japanese girl for the duration of the war. The finest performance is Pamela Helen Stephen, as Butterfly’s devoted maid Suzuki, a treat to hear one of ENO’s most accomplished mezzo sopranos on topmost form.
Definitely go and see. For the imaginative staging and some fine singing, for tremendous orchestral sound under the fresh young baton of Gianluca Marciano and for the most brightly-painted Butterfly you’re likely to catch for a long time.
JohnnyFox saw Madam Butterfly on press tickets provided by the team at ENO. Madam Butterfly continues in repertoire until 1 December. Tickets from the Box Office on 020 7845 9300 or from the ENO Website