Yesterday was a powerful mixture of the old and the new when I went on a trip to London to see the revival of the late Anthony Minghella’s sensational production of Puccini’s opera Madam Butterfly. first produced in 2005 and now revived with the same singers in the two principal roles, it was the opera experience I have been awaiting since first cursing myself from missing it the first time round.
London on a hot muggy day looked fine with its now happy mix of the old and new in architecture as well as in the arts.
I spent some time round the corner from the English National Opera’s home at the London Coliseum at another of my favourite haunts, the National Gallery looking at the early Renaissance Italian paintings by Cimabue and Duccio before wandering off to see the gallery’s collection of paintings by Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian.
Luxury enough for one day anyone might think without the thrilling experience of seeing, for the first time, my favourite out of all the Puccini operas. I have avoided going before because of an immature fear of making a public spectacle of myself at this the most emotionally demanding of operas. In the end I cried with the best of them and feel a whole lot better..
Anthony Minghella always struck me as a fine but ultimately not that sensational a film director but this , his only opera production must stand as my all-time favourite production of any opera that I have seen in a life-time of opera-going. Not only did it bring a new mix of styles together into something entirely new but it did it with a musician’s ear for Puccini’s score, itself an inventire mix of the new and the old. It is a tragedy for opera that Mr Minghella didn’t live to build on this wonderful production.
The mix of traditional Japanese puppet theatre, the splendid Blind Summit Theatre, and cinematographic imagery in wide screen colour, where Michael Levine’s beautifully simple set design is gloriously lit by Peter Mumford, with vivid costumes by Han Feng, made this a truly magnificent as well as deeply moving experience. The use of a puppet for Butterfly’s young son was a brilliant and moving solution to the problem of child actors in this crucial role.
Too offten all those high production values can diminish the impact of the humble singers in their difficult job of singing and acting out their personal tragedies in such a vast space. none of that here last night. Mary Plazas, Minghella’s original Butterfly, returns to the part with real star quality. A tiny Japanese geisha with not just a bit heart but a huge voice too. Maybe it sounded frayed round the edges and a touch too mature for the opening scenes but, Plazas rose to the great love duet and then the evening was her’s. Impressive too was Minghella’s original Pinkerton, the Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones who has the right Italianate tones and knows how not to over-do things even if he doesn’t quite have the size of voice to provide that final operatic “ping” to the part of American Naval Lieutenant F.B. Pinkerton who’s marriage to butterfly is less real to him than it is to her. No question here what the F.B. stands for even if he ends the show appropriately broken-hearted.
It was like a night at the cinema with the added frisson of live performance and the thrill of operatic voices in visceral proximity. It is a production that everyone should see even if this curent run is unsurprizingly fully sold out. English National Opera and their co-producers, the Metropolitan Opera House, New York and Lithuanian National Opera must bring this back again and again. Don’t miss it next time.
It was a great day in London and I was glad to be there before the place overflows with the crowds that will invade for this weekend’s Diamond Jubilee festivities and then, horror of horros, the dreaded Olympics. Well, OK, enjoy them too if you want but both events could learn more than a thing or two from Anthony Minghella in terms of presenting an awe-inspiring spectacle.
With all that talk of Madam Butterfly, I had better play you a clip of the music – here, as a good starter if you don’t know it, is the “love” duet where Butterfly’s fate and her love is sealed and where Pinkerton might just be in love more than he thinks. Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti are quite a hard act to knock in this music from the classic recording by Herbert von Karajan. Enjoy and weep – that’s Puccini’s way.