Honour, blind devotion, betrayal and tragedy: Puccini’s Madam Butterfly has returned to the London Coliseum. One of the all-time great operas, this is a production by the late Antony Minghella, better known as director of The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley. It is, like those films, a breathtaking affair.
The first act follows the marriage between Lieutenant Pinkerton, an American navy officer, and the rather naïve geisha Cio Cio San, better known as Butterfly. We cringe at the flippant arrogance of Pinkerton, comparing the marriage to his newly signed flexible, and easily terminated, house lease and referring to his 15-year-old bride as his ‘play thing’. His thoughtless behaviour is contrasted by the credulously devoted Butterfly. The warnings of the American Counsel, Sharpless, go unheeded.
Minghella isn’t shy of using heavy symbolism: the set is exceptional, with powerful imagery and strong colours that are enhanced by Peter Mumford’s lighting design. This production is full of details from the atmospheric lanterns to the origami birds. Clever use is also made of the moving house panels; we were impressed with Pinkerton’s nifty disappearing act behind one of them.
Acts II and III lead us onwards to the final tragedy, when it becomes clear Pinkerton has no intention of returning to Butterfly and is, in fact, now married to an American (a ‘genuine marriage’, in his words). It is impossible not to be moved by the build-up of tension and the agony of Butterfly; her suicide scene is staged well.
John Fanning brings a sympathetic gravitas to his portrayal of Sharpless and Mary Plazas makes a tragically magnificent Butterfly. The supporting cast is put to imaginative uses and pull off some rather good dancing as well; some, especially during the wedding, seem a little superfluous, but it is not distracting.
Madam Butterfly is showing at the London Coliseum until Saturday 9 June.
By Rachel Phillips