Review: Madame Butterfly Takes Wing At The ENO

Madame Butterfly, ENO. ★★★☆☆

Franco Milazzo
By Franco Milazzo Last edited 21 months ago
Review: Madame Butterfly Takes Wing At The ENO Madame Butterfly, ENO. 3
Sorrow with Rena Harms and Stephanie Windsor-Lewis (c) Tom Bowles
Sorrow with Rena Harms and Stephanie Windsor-Lewis (c) Tom Bowles

Opening this week, the latest re-re-revival at the English National Opera is the late Anthony Minghella's take on Madame Butterfly or, as the kids know it, Miss Saigon Without The Helicopter.

This English language version first saw the light in November 2005 — over a century after the original by Giacomo Puccini made its first bow. A decade and six ENO revivals on, the production bursts with visual magic aplenty but suffers from an unbalanced cast.

Don't worry, we're not talking Black Swan here; instead, it is more about the vocal blend. Rena Harms' Cio-Cio San (the eponymous Madame Butterfly) presents too strident a voice compared to that of her colleagues and the likes of David Butt Philip (as Pinkerton, the US naval officer who is no gentleman) and Stephanie Windsor-Lewis (as Butterfly's handmaiden Suzuki) are competent enough but simply can't compete. Whenever Harms opens her gorgeous gob, the rest of the cast become pallid in comparison and, consequently, the first act feels too much like one is being sung at rather than to. Further, the casual confidence of Harm's voice makes it difficult to believe that she is a 15-year-old on the precipice of her first great love affair.

Thankfully, Minghella's magnificent visual touches do a damned fine job of glossing over all that. Hen Feng's costumes are gobsmacking creations and Peter Mumford's lighting does an expert job of creating a sense of intimacy on this mammoth stage.

A dozen performers from Blind Summit dressed in veils and black body suits float around like a burkha brigade, adding spectacular touches through lanterns and puppetry; their bunraku baby is a constant joy to watch and is more affecting than the libretto which suffers tonally and emotionally from being torn from its mother language.

Some of the imagery is unnecessarily heavy-handed, especially Pinkerton going from a white outfit in the first act to a near-identical black one at the end, and the baby's final farewell waving a US flag while blindfolded. Of all the things getting hammered on a West End night out, the point should not be one of them.

This is the kind of opera where it's not over until the wronged lady dies and, by that point, this slick production has turned it around and done what it does best. Bring a hanky or a friend with an absorbent shoulder: Madame Butterfly is still the ultimate tearjerker.

Madame Butterfly continues until 7 July. More information can be found on the official ENO website.

Londonist attended on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 17 May 2016